Training Wheels Off for XBRL

As limited liability ends, tagged financials are still getting a bad rap for errors and comparability.

Four years after large companies were required to start tagging their financial filings in XBRL, the training wheels are coming off, with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s offer of limited liability for errors in XBRL-tagged filings ending this year.

The tagged data is still not that popular with its target audience of analysts and investors, though, and there are complaints about the extent of the errors in the tagged data, as well as a lack of comparability among different companies’ data.

The SEC is requiring companies to tag their 10-Q and 10-K filings to make it easier for the investment community to gather financial data about companies and compare them.

At a March conference on XBRL and financial analysis organized by XBRL US, Baruch College and the New York Society of Security Analysts, Dan Gode, a professor at NYU’s Stern School, argued that the Securities and Exchange Commission should treat tagging errors “with the same seriousness as errors in financial statements.”

“I want far more data accuracy than exists right now,” Gode said, adding that tagged data should have to be audited.

Campbell Pryde, CEO and president of XBRL US, a nonprofit consortium that develops taxonomies for XBRL and supports its implementation, said the organization’s tracking shows about 2% of tagged data has problems. Fortune 500 companies, which have been tagging their filings the longest, are making fewer errors, and 10-Q filings are cleaner than 10-Ks. “The reason the Ks have more problems, there’s more disclosure, they’re starting to report more detailed information, so the opportunity for errors is increased,” Pryde said.

XBRL US and the AICPA have launched an XBRL certification program, an online course that provides detailed data on how to tag GAAP financial statements, in hopes of eliminating a lot of the errors, Pryde said. “Some of these problems are pretty straightforward to resolve,” he added. “We’re not talking about complex issues, we’re talking about putting the signs the wrong way,” he said.

Another issue involves companies’ creation of new tags for some of their numbers, a practice that can make it harder to compare their finances with those of their peers.

At the conference, Dan Gode of Stern outlined problems he had encountered in using XBRL-tagged data. For example, his search for companies with the most warranties failed to turn up General Motors and Ford, because the two automakers use different tags for warranties than other companies, he said.

“The comparability side, that’s something the regulators are going to have to watch over and put some emphasis behind,” added Glenn Doggett, director of standards of practice for the CFA Institute.

A tension between allowing companies to provide their financial information in a very detailed way and having the data in a format that allows comparisons, according to XBRL US’s Pryde. XBRL US is working on a model that would “normalize data into a standardized format,” he said.

Despite the complaints about accuracy and comparability, speakers at the conference called for tagging additional types of financial filings.

The investment community would be particularly interested in having earnings releases and the proxy statement tagged, Pryde said. Since the SEC doesn’t have oversight over earnings releases, it’s not likely they will be tagged any time soon, Pryde said, but he sees the possibility that portions of the annual proxy could be tagged in coming years.

As companies work to refine their use of XBRL, is anyone using all the newly tagged financial information?

A evaluation of XBRL that was released in January by Columbia Business School’s Center for Excellence in Accounting and Security Analysis found that fewer than 10% of the 26 analysts and investors interviewed for the report used XBRL-tagged data accessed directly from the SEC’s Web page or other organizations that provide the data for free.

However, at the Baruch conference, Matthew Slavin of the SEC’s Office of Interactive Data said that use of the tagged data is growing, noting that “many more people” now use the agency’s XBRL viewer webpage.

The SEC’s XBRL viewer webpage was accessed about 621,000 times this March, up from 358,000 hits in March 2012 and 127,000 hits in March 2011, according to the SEC. But a spokesperson for the agency said that it’s impossible to say how many of the people who accessed the site actually downloaded data.

Glenn Doggett of the CFA Institute said that while the portion of investors that access tagged data directly may be low, many analysts get their data from aggregators like Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters. To the extent that the aggregators use the tagged data, the analysts are getting the benefit of it.

For analysts whose job is to respond immediately after a company announces its earnings, XBRL is beside the point, since the company’s earnings press release, which isn’t tagged, is available before the tagged SEC filings, Doggett said.

And for analysts who make longer-term recommendations, the fact that financials tagged in XBRL go back only a few years is a problem. “If your information is solely coming from XBRL, you don’t have a very long history,” Doggett said. “Part of it is, it’s a matter of time.”

Pryde said some companies are finding their own uses for the tagged data, including a number that are turning to XBRL data to benchmark themselves versus their peers. “People are using XBRL as a tool to increase the speed at which they can do that comparison and quickly identify changes among their peers,” he said.

Further, as more companies decide to do the work of tagging their data in-house, instead of outsourcing it, they have a greater ability to make use of the tagged data, Doggett added. He cited Microsoft, which uses its tagged data to populate its investor Website.


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