Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Make Your Financials Easier to Understand

In my opinion, most companies do a lousy job presenting their financials on their websites. It’s not that the information is not there; it’s just that companies don’t make it easy for investors to work with the data. I find this surprising given that financial information is the lifeblood of understanding how a company is doing, but it’s probably part of the regulatory mindset of investor relations. Many companies will disclose their financials to the extent and in the form regulations require it, but no more than that.

Computers and the web give us lots of innovative ways to present financial information in an interactive and easy to use manner. Yet most financials I see on the web are static and limited in scope, with little to no interactivity. This means that companies are forcing investors to laboriously build spreadsheets by copying over information and then creating formulas to calculate ratios. We’re starting to see this change a bit as you can now copy and paste the basic numbers with the use of XBRL, but it’s still not that easy to deal with, and the time periods are limited to those set out in the 10-Q and 10-K formats. And don’t even get me started about the pain and suffering involved in creating useful graphs.

Just to prove my point, I went out and looked at the web sites of four major players in the discount store sector, Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and BJ’s Warehouse Club. Here’s what I found:

Wal-Mart: provides quarterly press release financials, SEC filings and their Annual Report. The financials from the Annual report are in pdf format with three years of income statement and cash flow data and two years of balance sheet data, as you would find in a 10-K.

Costco: same as Wal-Mart.

Target: In addition to the same information provided by Wal-Mart and Costco, Target also provides Summary financial information in pdf format for their consolidated financials, retail segment and credit card segment for varying periods of time.

BJ’s Warehouse Club: The smallest of the four companies mentioned here, BJ’s actually goes one better than everyone else by providing, in addition to press releases and annual reports, an excel download capability for their 10-Q and 10-K filings, based on XBRL technology. (This information is also available for the other three companies, but you have to go to the SEC website to get it.)

In this day and age, there ought to be a better way to present the financials so that investors can get to the information they want quickly and with a minimum of effort.

And there is. A company by the name of Virtua Research ( has created a product, which they call Interactive Analyst Center, which allows investors to go in and look at multiple years worth of data, ratios and charts, in an easily accessible format. I’ve spent some time looking at the product and I like what I see.

The product allows companies to set up their sites to provide financial information to investors that they can use quickly and easily. For example, on the site I reviewed, there were five years of annual and quarterly financial data available. There was also a page that computed over 40 different financial ratios and even included some non-financial operational ratios that the company considered important. Finally, the part that I thought was the slickest, a charts page allows the viewer to go in and create charts with only one or two clicks.

I think many company websites could benefit from this product, as it compiles financial data about a company into a single easy to use package. In short, it allows investors to analyze instead of spending their time gathering data and crunching numbers. In this day and age of time stressed investors and short attention spans, anything a company can do to help investors get a handle on their financials should be worth a look.

(Full and fair disclosure: I have a potential financial interest in this product if sales result from referrals, so feel free to mention my name. It would be the first time I’ve made money from this blog.)

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