With thousands of publicly listed companies in the US scrambling to tag their data using eXtensible Business Reporting Language ahead of this June's reporting deadline, it is hardly surprising to find Marty Vanderploeg, a managing director at WebFilings, and one of its co-founders, in an expansive mood.
XBRL, as one of the many regulatory changes with which CFOs have had to cope over the past decade, has engendered high hopes among those calling for greater transparency in financial reporting. Individual investors and government regulators alike, it is argued, will eventually be able to query financials throughout the system for indicators of everything from fraud to good news without relying on analysts, Bloomberg terminals and other intermediaries.
But, as with nearly all innovation, there are detractors.
Many CFOs participating in earlier XBRL implementation rounds, which began in 2010, report that they are finally getting the hang of it, in large part by shifting workload from ad-hoc in-house solutions to companies like WebFilings.
But this ascent up the learning curve has come only after many reported horror stories and here is skepticism about whether these initial compliance headaches have been worth it.
Vanderploeg feels their pain. "In general, the corporate world that's required to do this regards it as onerous. They'll use buzzwords about excessive government regulation," he says.
"You can say what you want about the government, but this is being adopted all over the world," he adds, predicting that XBRL will soon invade financial reporting realms beyond annual and quarterly reporting. "Taxonomies are already being developed for proxy statements and other announcements."
Beyond that, "it's not just numbers. Imagine if our entire medical system was tagged with XBRL," he says. "Obviously that's a ways away."
Looking even farther into the future, Vanderploeg imagines a day when "corruption will be pushed away," thanks to XBRL-induced transparency. "I hope you won't see fraud anywhere, from welfare to Enron."
In the meantime, ahead of this vision, which he admits is probably some "10 to 20 years away," XBRL is "just in its infancy," he says, a point he must often reiterate when talking to clients.
"When I go out on sales calls," he says, "I tell customers 'you guys are the pioneers'."
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