14 November 2012

Laughing at the High Priests

The Wall Street Journal article on November 13th (Companies Grow Weary of XBRL) contains a lovely line:

"When Cyprus asked a panel of corporate controllers at the conference whether they were getting any value out of XBRL, the hotel ballroom full of corporate finance professionals erupted into laughter." 

In context, Nick Cyprus is the controller and chief accounting officer at General Motors, and this was at the FEI (Financial Executives International) conference in New York this week.

I do not know if the High Priests of the Cult of XBRL were in the room. They usually are. These were just the right venues to peddle the tired old promises that XBRL would achieve everything from faster, better internal communication, more efficient external reporting, faster closes, and a host of other benefits - most of which could be achieved simply by actually effectively implementing the already existing ERP systems. But it is long past time High Priests heard the message - no more bullshit about how XBRL will save my business! As I have said in previous posts, the only winners from XBRL so far (in the US filing implementation) are the SEC (so we are told again and again), the consultants, and Indian outsource providers.

There were options for the SEC, options that would have cost far less and that would have had a negligible impact on American public companies. These options were not taken.

When I chaired the XBRL US Steering Committee in 2005/2006, I had a meeting at the SEC discussing what it would cost to build the XBRL US GAAP taxonomy. My response, based on the detailed planning document provided to me by the XBRL US Taxonomy Working Group, said $4.5 million.

I gave that number, thinking "too high, we're dead".

The response I got was "Dan, we're the government. We really cannot solve $4 million problems. If you'd said $400 million, we might be able to do something." All tongue in cheek, of course.

Yet, how prophetic.

Because now the SEC does have a $400 million problem that they can solve. Let's hope they have heard what they need to hear from business.

As for the High Priests of the Cult of XBRL - I'm afraid they will never hear the laughter - even when it is no longer behind their backs.