Crunch time nears for 'bar-coded' USA Inc earnings

Mon May 2, 2011 1:41pm EDT

* Small companies wary of costs, time for XBRL compliance

* SEC says XBRL levels playing field for retail investors

* 8,000 companies face June 15 deadline

* EDGAR Online, financial printers benefiting

By Dena Aubin

NEW YORK, May 2 (Reuters) - U.S. companies are racing to meet new "bar-code" requirements for financial reports, even as some chafe at the regulatory mandate aimed at helping investors analyze and compare results more quickly.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has already made it mandatory for about 2,000 of the largest companies to report financial statements in a computer code known as XBRL, which has been likened to bar-coding used by retailers.

With XBRL, the smallest investors will be able to get information as quickly as the largest hedge funds, down to a fraction of a second, according to supporters of the technology.

About 8,000 smaller companies have to start using XBRL -- or eXtensible Business Reporting Language -- for reporting periods after June 15, and experts say there has been a last-minute push as the deadline approaches.

While it has been hailed by backers as a revolution in financial statements, many small companies have been reluctant to take on XBRL due to cost and time constraints.

"We expect the panic to peak around the third to fourth week of May when people realize that the SEC is not going to defer this, and, 'Oh my God, we have to get it done,'" said Daniel Roberts, chief executive of raas-XBRL, a company that provides XBRL services.

The true value of XBRL may become clear when more companies are reporting with the codes, giving analysts enough data to compare entire industries. Once each bit of company data has a machine-readable tag, numbers that now get buried in mountains of footnotes can be quickly culled.

"It's free and it's highly granular data," said David Blaszkowsky, who heads the SEC's interactive data effort. "This is as good as it gets out there."

MORE PAIN NEXT YEAR

XBRL is expanding around the globe, with China, Japan, Britain, Australia and many others using the technology.

Many U.S. companies, however, are questioning the usefulness of XBRL. Companies that have already posted XBRL data on their websites saw just slight interest from investors, according to a survey last year by Financial Executives International, a group representing corporate finance officers.

"They're doing all this, but how is the marketplace going to use it?" said Sean Denham, a partner at audit and consulting firm Grant Thornton. "The jury's still out."

The XBRL requirements will leave less time for companies to refine financial reports and make changes, said Linster Fox, chief financial officer at Shuffle Master SHFL.O, which makes equipment for casinos.

"As an investor, I respect what they're doing and I like the idea that the information will be easier to analyze," he told Reuters. "As a person having to actually perform it, it's an extra burden."

Some companies asked if they should bear the cost of XBRL.

"Our first-hand observation is that the time and expense for registrants to comply with these requirements have gone far beyond what anyone expected," Douglas Chia, assistant general counsel at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), wrote to the SEC last fall. He urged the agency to look into whether the changes will benefit mostly XBRL service providers.

The technology has spawned a growth industry among financial printers, software providers and other companies that specialize in SEC filings.

EDGAR Online Inc EDGR.O, a major player, said in March that its XBRL filing revenue in 2010 jumped 54 percent from 2009 to $6.4 million, nearly a third of its total revenue.

Calls from companies about XBRL jumped about fivefold in recent weeks at Federal Filings LLC, a filing agent, said Chief Executive Eric Hopkins.

Many small companies delayed preparing for XBRL, hoping the SEC would give them a reprieve, as it did with some provisions of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley reform act, he said.

One of the most controversial provisions of XBRL is detailed tagging of footnotes. Companies can tag each footnote as a block the first year they use XBRL, but every number in the footnotes has to be tagged separately the second year.

That requirement takes effect for hundreds of companies this year and for more than 8,000 smaller companies next year, "and my prediction is that we are going to hear a howl of pain," said raas-XBRL's Roberts.

Companies can do their own tagging, but most are hiring outside help, experts said. Those that wait too long may have to pay up as demand surges, said Hopkins of Federal Filings.

"I'm not saying they should panic, but a little more urgency would probably be a good thing," he said. (Reporting by Dena Aubin; editing by John Wallace)