At an open meeting this morning, the SEC voted to propose the mandatory use of Inline XBRL for financial statement information. In June 2016, the SEC began a voluntary program allowing companies to file structured financial statement data using Inline XBRL. (See this PubCo post.) The progress of this sample suggested that a wider use was feasible. There are now only two SEC commissioners, but they both seemed to be genuinely excited about Inline XBRL.
(The SEC also voted to adopt new rule and form amendments requiring that the exhibit index in registration statements and reports contain hyperlinks to exhibits listed. See this PubCo post.)
The proposal, part of the SEC’s disclosure modernization initiative, would require the use of Inline XBRL for the submission of financial statement information for operating companies. Currently, companies are required to provide the financial statements accompanying their periodic and current reports in “structured,” i.e., machine-readable, format using XBRL, but they provide this XBRL data as an exhibit to their filings. Inline XBRL allows data tagging to be embedded directly in the text of an HTML document, eliminating the need for separate exhibits in most cases and, the SEC believes, reducing the likelihood of inconsistencies. According to the SEC Fact Sheet, “Inline XBRL would give the preparer full control over the presentation of XBRL disclosures within the HTML filing. In addition, tools like the open source Inline XBRL Viewer on SEC.gov can be used to review the XBRL data more efficiently.”
SideBar: Information is “structured” or made machine-readable by labeling (or “tagging”) the information using XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) so that it can be processed by software for analysis. The standard taxonomies of XBRL allow comparison and statistical analysis through automated means.
The proposal would also eliminate the requirement for filers to post Interactive Data File exhibits on their websites. At the meeting, Corp Fin staff indicated that the legal framework would remain the same. The proposal contemplates a three-year phase-in, although early compliance would be permitted.
SideBar: As discussed in this 2013 article in Compliance Week, “If You Build It, They May Not Come,” a report from Columbia Business School suggested that the time-consuming and costly effort to implement XBRL “might have been a colossal waste of time.” According to the report, the investors and analysts that were supposed to benefit from XBRL “don’t seem to be using it. According to the report’s authors,… analysts and investors remain skeptical about XBRL and have many concerns about its utility. The main complaint, according to the study, is that the data is still unreliable and fraught with errors. ‘We could not identify any users or potential users who were comfortable with the reliability of the XBRL-tagged data currently available,’ the authors write.” Apparently, a major problem is that companies are still using too many company-specific tags, known as “extensions,” rather than existing tags. The author speculates that “part of the problem lies with filers. They tend to think that the whole project is an exercise in tedium, and therefore they aren’t vested enough in the process to truly make it work. ‘Most filers we surveyed doubt whether any investors are using their XBRL data and believe they are bearing an unnecessary incremental cost with any benefits going to data aggregators who resell the data and can reduce their own data collection costs,’ the [report] authors write. They found that companies aren’t using their own XBRL interactive data for internal decision making or for benchmarking with peers. Until that changes, filers might not have enough skin in the game to really make XBRL work.” The author suggests that “it’s way too soon to dub XBRL a failure or to predict its demise. But the window of opportunity won’t be open forever, either….The fact is that just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. You’ve got to make it great. And with XBRL, it’s not entirely clear that regulators and, more importantly, filers have enough vested interest to improve XBRL to make it useful enough to get a broad swath of its intended audience to use it regularly.” (See this Cooley News Brief.) Whether the advantages offered by Inline XBRL will be enough to overcome XBRL’s negative reputation — whether justified or not — remains to be seen.
Here is the press release and related fact sheet. At this time, the proposing release has not yet been posted. I will update this post for relevant additional information when available.