CFOs Anticipate a Filing Crunch

The SEC's push for data-tagged financial statements is too aggressive, its critics say.
Sarah JohnsonAugust 5, 2008

Finance executives are dragging their wing-tips as the Securities and Exchange Commission races to mandate the use of data-tagging in financial statements within the next year.

In their comment letters for a proposal that would require companies to use so-called interactive data technology, the executives balked at the commission’s timeline. While they support the concept of data-tagging, many consider the SEC timetable “aggressive” and question whether the regulator has truly thought out how much the requirement will cost their companies.

Criticism of the proposed deadlines for submitting XBRL-prepared financial statements, in addition to the current, static versions of their 10-Qs and 10-Ks came from all sorts of companies — including those that have already used the technology under the SEC’s voluntary program — in comment letters sent to the SEC.

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In May, the SEC laid out its time frame requiring the largest U.S. publicly traded companies to start using XBRL — or extensible business reporting language — for their fiscal periods ending in late 2008, followed by smaller companies a year later. This means calendar-end companies with market caps of more than $5 billion would need to hurry up and figure out how they’ll manage to tag their filed numbers for their next 10-Ks. “The annual report season is the most demanding time of year for these registrants, and it seems illogical to increase the reporting requirements at this busy time,” wrote William Hernandez, senior vice president of finance for manufacturer PPG Industries.

Like many of the more than 50 respondents to the SEC proposal — whose comment period ended Friday — Hernandez suggests the SEC push back the initial deadline until at least the 10-Qs filed after June 2009 are due. That would give companies better practice at using the technology before applying it to an annual report, they claim.

For the most part, the publicly shared feedback to the SEC has been in favor of the promises of XBRL, a pet project of Chairman Christopher Cox. “Interactive data has the potential to increase the speed, accuracy, and usability of financial disclosure, and eventually reduce costs,” according to the SEC’s proposal. Indeed, Cox has said the technology will “let the sun shine in as never before.”

Still, company executives admit that the only way for the interactive-data concept to take off is if every company uses the technology and the same data tags. That way, investors can more easily pull out various companies’ financial data and make comparisons.

So far, outside the world of service providers and XBRL enthusiasts, interest in the technology has been minimal. The number of volunteers in the SEC’s three-year pilot program never got above the three-digit mark, and some executives wonder if investors even care about making financial statements easier to search.

The logical solution seems to be a regulatory mandate. (The SEC will consider companies that do not comply to be not current in their regulatory filings). But how long should the commissioners give companies to get used to the new process of publicly sharing their financial statements? The proposal tries to give companies some leeway; they wouldn’t have to tag their footnotes until the second year of using XBRL, for example (a detailed process that could take up to 400 hours, according to Gregg Nelson, vice president of accounting policy and financial reporting for IBM). And it gives companies up to 30 days after filing their traditional 10-Ks and 10-Qs to submit the data-tagged versions.

However, the proposal doesn’t seem to account for the rush the XBRL movement will put on service providers, according to finance executives from Pfizer and Comcast. As participants in the SEC voluntary program, both companies experienced lots of back-and- forth discussions with their vendors over technical issues. In their letters to the SEC, they suggest software vendors may not be able to match the high demand when smaller companies begin to use data tagging. “We have concerns as to whether such a level of service will be possible as more and more filers adopt XBRL,” wrote Lawrence Salva, chief accounting officer and controller for Comcast.