|By Bob Gourley||
|January 28, 2013 11:14 AM EST||
Last Tuesday Columbia Business School’s Center for Excellence in Accounting and Security Analysis released a definitive report evaluating the implementation of a structured data format for the financial statements that public companies file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Over a year in the making and based on extensive discussions and surveys with corporate filers, investors, data and filing vendors, regulators, and others, the survey illuminates the promise of structured data to better serve investors, improve the enforcement of securities laws, and make the U.S. capital market more efficient. It also reveals serious flaws in the SEC’s approach thus far – flaws which have prevented the promise from being realized.
In 2009, the SEC adopted a requirement for public companies to file each financial statement in the eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) alongside the regular plain-text version. The requirement was slowly phased in over four years, starting with the largest companies and eventually covering all public companies. The XBRL format imposes a data structure on the financial statements and their notes and footnotes by assigning electronic tags to each item and defining how the items relate to one another.
Judging by potential impact, this is the most ambitious data transparency program ever undertaken by the U.S. government. The XBRL reporting requirement transformed all of the public financial statements in the world’s largest capital market from cumbersome text, which must be manually transcribed to allow quantitative analysis by investors and regulators, into an open, standardized, machine-readable format.
In theory, replacing unstructured text with structured data should, by now, have triggered revolutions and disruptions all over the financial industry. The SEC’s XBRL reporting requirement should, by now, have opened up corporate financial statements in the United States to Big Data platforms and applications.
- Investors and analysts serving them should, by now, have started using powerful new software tools to compare and analyze the newly-structured financial statements – and to mash financial figures together with other data sources. They should be making better decisions, evaluating a broader universe of companies, and democratizing the financial industry.
- Aggregators like Bloomberg and Google Finance should, by now, have started saving money and improving accuracy by ingesting corporate financial data directly from the SEC’s structured XBRL feed instead of manually entering the numbers into their own systems (or paying someone else to do that).
- The SEC should, by now, have incorporated structured corporate financial data into its own review processes, instead of relying on manual reviews of the financial statements in Forms 10-K and 10-Q.
- Other federal agencies should, by now, have started automatically checking the financial performance of companies as reported to the SEC before bestowing contracts or loan guarantees (among many other possible uses).
None of these things is happening on a large scale – yet. The Columbia report explains why. The Columbia report also hints at what the SEC and Congress can, and should, do about it.
What does the Columbia report tell us?
- Investors are demanding structured data – not unstructured text – to track companies’ financial performance. The Columbia authors “have no doubt that [investors'] analysis of companies will continue to be based off increasing amounts of data that are structured and delivered to users in an interactive [structured] format” (p. i). “[T]here is clear demand for timely, structured, machine-readable data including information in financial reports, and … this need can be met via XBRL as long as the XBRL-tagged data can reduce the total processing costs of acquiring and proofing the data, and that the data are easily integrated (mapped) into current processes” (p. 20).
- Nonetheless, most investors are not making any use of the structured-data financial statements that public companies are now submitting to the SEC. Fewer than ten percent of the Columbia study’s non-scientific sample of investors said they were using XBRL data downloaded directly from the SEC or from XBRL US (p. 61). Instead, most investors were getting their corporate financial information from aggregators like Bloomberg and Google Finance – some free, some not. Moreover, aggregators told Columbia that they were not using XBRL data either. Aggregators were mostly still electronically scraping the old-fashioned plain-text financial statements (which are still being filed alongside the new structured-data financial statements) and manually verifying the numbers – or paying others to do that “labor-intensive” work for them. (pp 26-27.)
- Two problems explain why most investors have not begun to use structured-data financial statements. First, they don’t yet trust the data. “XBRL-tagged SEC data are generally perceived by investors as unreliable,” say the Columbia authors, both because of errors in numbers and categorization and because of companies’ use of unnecessary extensions, hindering comparability (p. 28). Columbia’s review of the quality of structured-data financial statements filed with the SEC (conducted two years ago) revealed that fully 73% of filings had data quality errors (p. 32). Moreover, investors reported “a large number of seemingly unnecessary company-specific tags” (p. 21). Investors surveyed by Columbia were “especially hesitant about using the data until they are comfortable that the XBRL data matches the [plain-text] data in SEC filings” (p. 21). Aggregators, too, were holding off until accuracy and comparability improved.
- Second, investors don’t yet have a wide range of software tools to compare and analyze structured-data financial statements. “End users are also looking for easy-to-use XBRL consumption and analysis tools that do not require programming or query language knowledge. In general, these users are not willing or able to incur the significant disruption to their workflow that they perceived would be required to incorporate XBRL data without state-of-the-art consumption and analytics tools.” (p. 24)
- If these two problems were fixed, investors could make enthusiastic and productive use of structured-data financial statements. “[T]he potential for interactive data to democratize financial information and transform transparency remains stronger than ever, and many participants, including most investors and analysts, wish that the data were useful today,” say the Columbia authors (p. 4). For instance, “virtually all investors” frequently use information that is available only in the footnotes of corporate financial statements to make their decisions – information that is now submitted and published in XBRL as part of companies’ structured-data filings (p. 48.) “With respect to the detailed-tagged footnote data, in particular, several investors and analysts have communicated to us that they view XBRL data as potentially an excellent solution to manually collecting the data they need” (p. 31).
- Even if most investors aren’t directly using structured-data financial statements, there will be indirect benefits to investors and the markets if the SEC starts using such data for its own reviews. The study reported that “the SEC has begun to review the data to identify filer-wide, as well as individual company filing and financial reporting issues. XBRL data could significantly enhance the efficiency of the Division of Corporate Finance’s review of filings and facilitate a “red-flag” ex-ante approach to regulatory oversight.” (p. 25) “Representatives from the FASB and the SEC have both stated on the record that, in their opinions, the amount of time that it takes them to conduct their respective analyses has been reduced significantly by their use of the XBRL-tagged data (p. 26).” Even imperfectly implemented, the XBRL mandate could indirectly benefit investors and the markets by improving the SEC’s review and enforcement processes.
The SEC’s XBRL reporting requirement could deliver transformative data transparency. But it has not. So far its impact has been incremental, not transformative.
To be sure, the problems identified by the Columbia study are problems of execution, not shortcomings of XBRL itself or of the concept of structured data. Investors and the analysts serving them “would like to have the U.S. regulatory filings tagged in a structured (e.g., XBRL) format that would meet their information requirements” (p. 5). For the SEC to eliminate the XBRL reporting requirement entirely – as some filers seem to hope that it will – would be a backward move and a tragic mistake.
Nevertheless, structured data for financial statements is, without doubt, “at a critical stage in its development. Without a serious reconsideration of the technology, coupled with a focus on facile usability of the data, and value-add consumption tools, it will at best remain of marginal benefit to the target audience of both its early proponents and the SEC’s mandate—investors and analysts” (p. ii).
How can these problems be fixed?
How can the SEC fix these problems of reliability and analysis and deliver transformative transparency? The Columbia report suggests four answers:
- First, insist on accuracy and quality! The SEC does not require companies to amend their filings to correct tagging errors and unnecessary extensions. The Columbia report suggests strongly that it should. The Columbia authors fault “the reticence (or inability) of regulators and filers to ensure that the interactive filings data are accurate and correctly-tagged from day one of their release to the public and forward (or, to communicate to the market for this information that they were not insisting on this and why)” (p. 37). It is “critical” to reduce errors and extensions, either through “greater regulatory oversight and potentially requiring the audit of this data” or through third-party quality checks (pp. 42-43). The SEC’s own interests should motivate it to insist on accuracy once it becomes “serious about using the data in its Corporate Finance function and even for enforcement, as it should” (p. 43) (emphasis added). The need to improve quality might require the SEC and the Financial Accounting Standards Board to consider simplifying the underlying XBRL taxonomy (pp. i, 14, 43).
- Second, communicate that structured data is not a supplemental feature of a regulatory filing. Rather, it is the filing! The Columbia authors explain that “the reliability of the data has been compromised by the way filers have approached their XBRL filings … [perceiving] XBRL-tagging [as] an additional task in the financial reporting documentation process rather than as a part of the internal data systems” (p. 29). The SEC framed its XBRL reporting rule as a requirement to “create an XBRL-tagged reproduction of the paper or HTML presentations of their filings” (p. 37), rather than “making individual data points available for the end user to utilize or present as they required” (p. 39). Since filers think structured-data financial statements are “incremental to their existing [plain-text] filings, they do not perceive any user need” (p. 35) – and take few pains to ensure that investors using their structured data filings get an accurate picture of their finances. “We believe this presentation-centric step hindered or diverted what should have been an important evolution from a paper presentation-centric view of financial reporting information to a far more transparent and effective data-centric one” (p. 37). One way to correct this situation would be to move to a data format that is both human-readable and machine-readable, combining the plain text and structured-data tags in a single filing. Inline XBRL would do exactly that, and in fact the SEC is considering adopting this format (n. 48).
- Third, encourage the development of software tools that make structured-data financial statements come alive! This is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. More software tools will be created as investors demand them. But effective, lightweight, cheap XBRL analysis tools are already on offer – notably Calcbench.
- Fourth, expand the mandate! The Columbia report is clear that investors want more regulatory information tagged and structured, not less (p. 28):
i. The data that are required by the SEC to be XBRL-tagged are all relevant in varying degrees to some subset of the investor/analyst population, but more data are required than currently mandated—e.g., earnings release, MD&A, etc.
ii. If anything, users require more, not less, types of machine-readable data to be made available, because a significant amount of information they require are not from SEC filings or financial statements.
iii. The primary focus on data in the SEC filings of annual and quarterly financial statements seriously limits the perceived ongoing usefulness and relevance of the data.
Over and over, the report points out that the SEC’s current mandate for structured data is limited to the financial statements and accompanying notes (pp. 14, 18, 21, 24, 34-35, 42). Everything else that companies must file with the SEC under the U.S. securities laws is still submitted only in plain text. These other materials – earnings releases, corporate actions, executive compensation disclosures, proxy statements, officer and director lists, management discussions – could be valuable if tagged. But they are not. Investors “view access to the full array of footnote, management discussion and analysis (MD&A), and earnings release numerical data as the main reason to consider adapting their workflow to incorporate XBRL-tagged filings” (p. 21). But this demand is “pent-up” because such items are not – yet – included in the SEC’s mandate (p. 24).
What lies ahead?
The path forward for the SEC is clear. First, the agency must take the basic steps that are necessary to improve the quality of structured-data financial statements. Second, to tap the full potential of structured data, the agency must first stop requiring the simultaneous submission of plain-text and structured-data versions of financial statements. It should instead collect single structured-data version. That would encourage companies, analysts, and the SEC’s own staff to focus on data, not on documents. Second, data transparency requires full standardization as well as publication. Third, the agency must expand its structured-data mandate by phasing in more disclosures: earnings releases, management’s discussion and analysis, executive compensation, proxy disclosures, ownership structure, board and officer lists, insider trading reports – and, eventually, everything.
If the SEC is unwilling to act, Congress could insist. Our Coalition will call for the reintroduction, this year, of the Financial Industry Transparency Act. That bipartisan proposal, first introduced in 2010 by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Edolphus Towns (D-NY), and Spencer Bachus (R-AL), would require these steps as a matter of law.
Internet-of-Things discussions can end up either going down the consumer gadget rabbit hole or focused on the sort of data logging that industrial manufacturers have been doing forever. However, in fact, companies today are already using IoT data both to optimize their operational technology and to improve the experience of customer interactions in novel ways. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Gordon Haff, Red Hat Technology Evangelist, will share examples from a wide range of industries – includin...
Dec. 5, 2016 04:15 AM EST Reads: 1,608
Unless your company can spend a lot of money on new technology, re-engineering your environment and hiring a comprehensive cybersecurity team, you will most likely move to the cloud or seek external service partnerships. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Darren Guccione, CEO of Keeper Security, revealed what you need to know when it comes to encryption in the cloud.
Dec. 5, 2016 04:00 AM EST Reads: 4,676
Organizations planning enterprise data center consolidation and modernization projects are faced with a challenging, costly reality. Requirements to deploy modern, cloud-native applications simultaneously with traditional client/server applications are almost impossible to achieve with hardware-centric enterprise infrastructure. Compute and network infrastructure are fast moving down a software-defined path, but storage has been a laggard. Until now.
Dec. 5, 2016 04:00 AM EST Reads: 5,400
We're entering the post-smartphone era, where wearable gadgets from watches and fitness bands to glasses and health aids will power the next technological revolution. With mass adoption of wearable devices comes a new data ecosystem that must be protected. Wearables open new pathways that facilitate the tracking, sharing and storing of consumers’ personal health, location and daily activity data. Consumers have some idea of the data these devices capture, but most don’t realize how revealing and...
Dec. 5, 2016 04:00 AM EST Reads: 5,087
It's easy to assume that your app will run on a fast and reliable network. The reality for your app's users, though, is often a slow, unreliable network with spotty coverage. What happens when the network doesn't work, or when the device is in airplane mode? You get unhappy, frustrated users. An offline-first app is an app that works, without error, when there is no network connection. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Bradley Holt, a Developer Advocate with IBM Cloud Data Services, discussed...
Dec. 5, 2016 01:00 AM EST Reads: 3,326
Data is the fuel that drives the machine learning algorithmic engines and ultimately provides the business value. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Ed Featherston, director/senior enterprise architect at Collaborative Consulting, will discuss the key considerations around quality, volume, timeliness, and pedigree that must be dealt with in order to properly fuel that engine.
Dec. 5, 2016 12:45 AM EST Reads: 1,569
Between 2005 and 2020, data volumes will grow by a factor of 300 – enough data to stack CDs from the earth to the moon 162 times. This has come to be known as the ‘big data’ phenomenon. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to handling, storing and analyzing data aren’t adequate at this scale: they’re too costly, slow and physically cumbersome to keep up. Fortunately, in response a new breed of technology has emerged that is cheaper, faster and more scalable. Yet, in meeting these new needs they...
Dec. 5, 2016 12:45 AM EST Reads: 1,806
In addition to all the benefits, IoT is also bringing new kind of customer experience challenges - cars that unlock themselves, thermostats turning houses into saunas and baby video monitors broadcasting over the internet. This list can only increase because while IoT services should be intuitive and simple to use, the delivery ecosystem is a myriad of potential problems as IoT explodes complexity. So finding a performance issue is like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Dec. 5, 2016 12:30 AM EST Reads: 6,083
According to Forrester Research, every business will become either a digital predator or digital prey by 2020. To avoid demise, organizations must rapidly create new sources of value in their end-to-end customer experiences. True digital predators also must break down information and process silos and extend digital transformation initiatives to empower employees with the digital resources needed to win, serve, and retain customers.
Dec. 5, 2016 12:15 AM EST Reads: 1,159
When it comes to cloud computing, the ability to turn massive amounts of compute cores on and off on demand sounds attractive to IT staff, who need to manage peaks and valleys in user activity. With cloud bursting, the majority of the data can stay on premises while tapping into compute from public cloud providers, reducing risk and minimizing need to move large files. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Scott Jeschonek, Director of Product Management at Avere Systems, discussed the IT and busin...
Dec. 5, 2016 12:15 AM EST Reads: 3,815
"We are the public cloud providers. We are currently providing 50% of the resources they need for doing e-commerce business in China and we are hosting about 60% of mobile gaming in China," explained Yi Zheng, CPO and VP of Engineering at CDS Global Cloud, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 11:45 PM EST Reads: 920
"Once customers get a year into their IoT deployments, they start to realize that they may have been shortsighted in the ways they built out their deployment and the key thing I see a lot of people looking at is - how can I take equipment data, pull it back in an IoT solution and show it in a dashboard," stated Dave McCarthy, Director of Products at Bsquare Corporation, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 10:45 PM EST Reads: 1,001
Predictive analytics tools monitor, report, and troubleshoot in order to make proactive decisions about the health, performance, and utilization of storage. Most enterprises combine cloud and on-premise storage, resulting in blended environments of physical, virtual, cloud, and other platforms, which justifies more sophisticated storage analytics. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Peter McCallum, Vice President of Datacenter Solutions at FalconStor, discussed using predictive analytics to mon...
Dec. 4, 2016 07:00 PM EST Reads: 4,921
Today we can collect lots and lots of performance data. We build beautiful dashboards and even have fancy query languages to access and transform the data. Still performance data is a secret language only a couple of people understand. The more business becomes digital the more stakeholders are interested in this data including how it relates to business. Some of these people have never used a monitoring tool before. They have a question on their mind like “How is my application doing” but no id...
Dec. 4, 2016 06:30 PM EST Reads: 2,179
@GonzalezCarmen has been ranked the Number One Influencer and @ThingsExpo has been named the Number One Brand in the “M2M 2016: Top 100 Influencers and Brands” by Onalytica. Onalytica analyzed tweets over the last 6 months mentioning the keywords M2M OR “Machine to Machine.” They then identified the top 100 most influential brands and individuals leading the discussion on Twitter.
Dec. 4, 2016 06:30 PM EST Reads: 2,036
As data explodes in quantity, importance and from new sources, the need for managing and protecting data residing across physical, virtual, and cloud environments grow with it. Managing data includes protecting it, indexing and classifying it for true, long-term management, compliance and E-Discovery. Commvault can ensure this with a single pane of glass solution – whether in a private cloud, a Service Provider delivered public cloud or a hybrid cloud environment – across the heterogeneous enter...
Dec. 4, 2016 06:00 PM EST Reads: 1,545
All clouds are not equal. To succeed in a DevOps context, organizations should plan to develop/deploy apps across a choice of on-premise and public clouds simultaneously depending on the business needs. This is where the concept of the Lean Cloud comes in - resting on the idea that you often need to relocate your app modules over their life cycles for both innovation and operational efficiency in the cloud. In his session at @DevOpsSummit at19th Cloud Expo, Valentin (Val) Bercovici, CTO of Soli...
Dec. 4, 2016 04:45 PM EST Reads: 1,648
"IoT is going to be a huge industry with a lot of value for end users, for industries, for consumers, for manufacturers. How can we use cloud to effectively manage IoT applications," stated Ian Khan, Innovation & Marketing Manager at Solgeniakhela, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 04:15 PM EST Reads: 4,212
Join Impiger for their featured webinar: ‘Cloud Computing: A Roadmap to Modern Software Delivery’ on November 10, 2016, at 12:00 pm CST. Very few companies have not experienced some impact to their IT delivery due to the evolution of cloud computing. This webinar is not about deciding whether you should entertain moving some or all of your IT to the cloud, but rather, a detailed look under the hood to help IT professionals understand how cloud adoption has evolved and what trends will impact th...
Dec. 4, 2016 03:00 PM EST Reads: 2,532
Information technology is an industry that has always experienced change, and the dramatic change sweeping across the industry today could not be truthfully described as the first time we've seen such widespread change impacting customer investments. However, the rate of the change, and the potential outcomes from today's digital transformation has the distinct potential to separate the industry into two camps: Organizations that see the change coming, embrace it, and successful leverage it; and...
Dec. 4, 2016 03:00 PM EST Reads: 3,262