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Feds Lead The XBRL Charge

Regulators are pushing banks and financial services firms to use the XBRL standard to report financial data. Public companies are next.

Federal regulators usually aren't at the forefront of technology adoption. But the folks in Washington who oversee banks and financial services providers are spearheading the adoption of XBRL, the Extensible Business Reporting Language, an emerging international standard for the electronic transmission of business and financial information. However, with their focus on using XBRL to file regulatory reports, financial services firms are missing many of the benefits that the standard is supposed to provide.

One of the biggest proponents of XBRL is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which last year implemented a system that requires banks to file quarterly reports, known as call reports, in XBRL. Around 8,200 U.S. banks use XBRL to submit their call reports, which include information on balance sheets and income statements.

"In the past, we accepted whatever data was sent to us and processed it on a mainframe system," says Martin Henning, associate director of the agency's statistics branch. FDIC analysts would double-check and validate the information in a two- to three-week manual process that required them to work with a bank via phone, e-mail, or fax.

To shift to the open standard, the FDIC deployed a hosted system from Unisys that bankers and agency staff access through a Web browser. At the core of the system is an XBRL engine supplied by UBmatrix that lets the FDIC exchange XBRL-tagged documents with banks. The agency gets more accurate data sooner than it used to and can validate it faster, Henning says.

The FDIC made it easy for banks to comply--perhaps too easy. It asked vendors that provide regulatory reporting software to the banks to create an interface that would allow them to submit call reports in XBRL. As a result, banks didn't have to make changes to their internal IT systems or incorporate the XBRL data standard into their own financial records.

"We're seeing fairly slow [internal] adoption of XBRL in the banking industry," says Doug Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the American Bankers Association.

Banks and other financial services firms could use XBRL to label and automate the content of financial documents. XBRL places a unique tag on, say, a company's net profit figure. The software then selects, sorts, stores, and exchanges tagged information with other companies or regulators, without having to manually re-enter numbers and copy them to spreadsheets. Accountants "can perform analysis of a company, of a sector, of a specific topic in a matter of seconds, instead of spending all their time finding the data, accessing it, and validating it," says Mike Willis, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and founding chairman of XBRL International, the global consortium that's developing the standard.

Reluctant To Talk

In addition to the FDIC, other members of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, including the Federal Reserve System and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, require banks to file quarterly call reports in XBRL. Federal banking agencies have built a shared data repository for XBRL-tagged call report data. Companies are reluctant to discuss their XBRL deployments; InformationWeek contacted eight of them, but none would talk.

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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