XBRL Skeptics Abound

Some doubt that interactive financial data will be of much use.
Alan RappeportJanuary 4, 2008

Despite a relentless push by the Securities and Exchange Commission to promote its “interactive data” agenda, skepticism of XBRL won’t die. Critics have called the introduction of extensible business-reporting language, or XBRL, a boon for consultancies and regulators but a pain for practitioners.

After attending a panel last month on the SEC and accounting developments in Atlanta, Jay Starkman, who runs an accounting firm there, was so unimpressed that he penned a letter to The Financial Times complaining that XBRL is a “consulting product” in search of a market.

“If it was really that great, it wouldn’t have to be mandated,” Starkman told “It’s being pushed by the people who have an interest in pushing it.”

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Top audit firms and consultancies have been touting XBRL for a while. As early as 2003, PricewaterhouseCoopers deemed interactive data a “top tech trend.” Proponents hope it will make financial data easier to sort and analyze, but others see it as an expensive gimmick.

In the midst of the debate on XBRL’s merits, the SEC has moved forward with making the technology ready for prime time. Last year the commission completed the development of data tags for the entire system of U.S. generally accepted accounting principles and began contemplating whether XBRL should be mandated. The regulator also recently introduced handy tools, such as a viewer for comparing executive pay and risk-return data on mutual funds. Meanwhile, many participants in the SEC’s pilot program have publicly cheered about how seamless the XBRL transition has been for them.

But not everyone is so happy with the prospect of XBRL. “It’s not going to help me make an analysis,” says Starkman, explaining that the ability to sort data will not make the information easier to interpret or give users the ability to read between the lines of a balance sheet. “I want to use the whole financial statement. It’s an art, not a science.”

Others at the same panel Starkman attended agree: “It is more than a minor annoyance to companies,” says Brink Dickerson, a securities attorney with Troutman Sanders in Atlanta.

Some of those peeves are the need to manually code data until mainstream software packages catch up with the XBRL technology, the time it will take to file statements both in XBRL and the traditional way, and the potential liabilities that could be incurred if the technology has glitches that make information less reliable. Considering those issues, “it is not clear that the benefits that can be obtained justify the costs,” says Dickerson.

To be sure, participants in the SEC’s pilot program have said the costs thus far have not been overly burdensome. Comcast, for example, spent just $5,000 and 150 hours on its first XBRL filing. However, other companies have been fearful that if mandated, XBRL might lead to more regulation. “Don’t be fooled just because XBRL has been around for a long time and nothing has happened,” says Cody Smith, a partner in PwC’s national office. “It may have to be applied in the nearer term.” He has heard of concern that XBRL could require an additional audit.

For its part, the SEC has said it will be lenient with its regulation of XBRL during the “adoption” stage. Last year Christopher Cox, the SEC chairman, said the creation of tags — the strings of computer code assigned to every line item in a financial statement prepared using XBRL — will not require an additional audit.

Observers have also noted that XBRL could represent new competition for existing firms that peddle financial information for a profit. Providers such as Bloomberg, Reuters, and Thomson Financial make a living selling financial data that cannot be redistributed. XBRL — which is intended to make data easy to access, sort, manage, and compare — could eat into such businesses.

In spite of its detractors, XBRL is forging ahead. Last week members of the Financial Accounting Standards Board traveled to SEC headquarters to discuss XBRL issues. Traffic has also been picking up at the free XBRL viewer on the SEC’s Website. According to Rivet Software, the creator of the Web-based viewer, that part of the site had nearly 18,000 visits in December, compared with only 5,000 last March. “It’s really been spiking since September,” says Christy Rohrs, an accountant and senior consultant at Rivet.

In response to Starkman’s letter, the FT received and published several others pointing out misconceptions about interactive data in its defense. One noted protectively that “you don’t have to be a geek” to appreciate XBRL. Even Starkman concedes that with more work and information dedicated to developing XBRL, “it could hold some promise.”

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