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Will the AICPA Take Over XBRL Standards?

Companies could be filing XBRL-ready financial statements as soon as 2008. But some observers worry that the definitions corporations will have to follow will be written almost entirely by accountants.

Thanks to unrelenting cheerleading by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox and, now, millions of dollars in SEC funding, XBRL is almost ready for prime time.

After years of glacial development, XBRL (which stands for eXtensible Business Reporting Language) may soon be sufficiently developed for public companies to publish the financial data in their 10-Ks and 10-Qs in a format that is easily read, compared, and analyzed by computers. Indeed, if all goes well, the remaining standardized definitions should be written about a year from now — just in time for the 2008 filing season — say the leaders of that effort.

But with XBRL’s new momentum come concerns over who will steer the process through the last mile, and whether the end result will help or handcuff the finance departments of public companies.

To be sure, the SEC hasn’t said that it would require all U.S. public issuers to file their financials in XBRL. But Cox has pounded the drum for its adoption steadily, arguing that XBRL will make it easier for companies to share the data filed under generally accepted accounting principles among themselves and with investors via the Web. And those investors, the thinking goes, will create strong demand-side motivations that could push companies to adopt XBRL even if it’s not mandatory.

Moreover, the notion of a universal changeover to XBRL has gathered steam since late September, when U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissioner Christopher Cox announced that the SEC had awarded three contracts worth $54 million to change the current disclosure system “from a form-based electronic filing cabinet to a dynamic real-time search tool with interactive capabilities.”

The bulk of that investment — $48 million — will go to modernizing the SEC’s own EDGAR database, and another $500,000 has been earmarked for an effort to produce interactive data tools for investors. But the remaining $5.5 million, to be spent on finishing off the writing of code for XBRL “taxonomies,” is targeted directly at corporate finance.

“Since taxonomies have already been written for more than 80 percent of the companies that file reports with the SEC, I am encouraging every one of these companies to file their next quarterly reports in interactive data format, as part of our current voluntary program. And by adding $5 million to the taxonomy writing effort over the next few months, the SEC is making it possible for every company to file XBRL financial reports in 2008,” Cox told CFO.com in an E-mail on Monday. (To date, 24 companies have agreed to voluntarily take part in the commission’s pilot program and submit their yearly, quarterly, and other reports using interactive data for a period of one year, according to the SEC.)

The money and responsibility for completing the taxonomies — collections of “tags” labeling the data supplied by all filers of financial reports under GAAP — is now in the hands of XBRL-US, Inc. Formerly a committee of the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and then a consortium of XBRL enthusiasts, the group, which has about 75 member companies and 25 individual members, is now faced with the task of a becoming a fully independent professional organization even as it tries to fulfill its end of the SEC contract.

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