Back in January and February of this year, I wrote a couple of pieces about how I didn’t really get what all the whoopla surrounding XBRL was about. Those pieces generated a fair amount of comments and I even wound up talking to the folks at the SEC about XBRL. Not to put too fine a point on it, at the time I stated that I just couldn’t understand how XBRL was going to revolutionize the use of data by investors.
While I was doing research the other day on the SEC’s EDGAR database of filings, I noticed that reports are now beginning to be tagged as having “Interactive Data”. So I thought that I owed it to myself to go back and see how this XBRL stuff works in practice. Maybe the scales would fall from my eyes and I would see the error of my ways. Maybe I would be able to see how the data flowed seamlessly, enabling us to quickly reach investment decisions that were lost to us before. And maybe pigs would fly.
What I found when I went to the interactive data was that you could click on a heading such as Income Statement, and the P&L would come right up. I found the data had two properties: first, the headings were tagged. So for example, if you click on Revenues, you find that it’s US GAAP, the data type is monetary, the balance type is a credit and the period is the duration of the quarter. In other words, what you learn in Accounting 101. Secondly, you can grab the data and paste it into another document fairly easily. Also of note was the fact that the financials and notes are available as an Excel download, although everything I downloaded had a file name of “Financial_Report.xls”, so if you don’t rename the file right away, it becomes one of many with the same name.
After I had played with the data for a while, I sat back and thought about the cost /benefit analysis for what we’ve gone through with XBRL. On the benefit side we’ve gained a bit of functionality. I, for one, will welcome the ability to grab data off a downloaded spreadsheet rather than re-keying it when I want to do some analysis. But I don’t see a lot beyond that. The tagging of the data seems to merely tell me what I knew before. Further, professional investors have had the data in comparable and downloadable form for years. Systems such as Bloomberg and Telemet Orion (and I assume Reuters, although I have no experience with that system) already perform this function and a lot of other analytics as well. So my conclusion is that only relatively small investors are being helped. Against this we have to weigh the thousands of dollars spent and numerous man-hours invested by every company converting to XBRL.
To me this seems like another example of something that sounds good in theory, but the practical advantages just don’t seem to live up to the hype. In other words, it’s a governmental agency imposing a standard where the costs outweigh the benefits. The irony of it all is that the ultimate cost for all of this will be born by investors, because the cost of adopting to the new systems is a corporate expense, which lowers earnings, which will result in lower share prices.