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The SEC’s Risky New IDEA

Posted by Philip Mattera on September 3rd, 2008

When you go to the Securities and Exchange Commission website these days, the first thing you see is an animation that looks like something out of The Matrix films or the TV show Numb3rs. It seems the agency’s accountants and lawyers are trying to look cool as they move toward the creation of a new system for distributing public-company financial information on the web.

Recently SEC Chairman Christopher Cox (photo) unveiled Interactive Data Electronic Applications (IDEA, for short), the successor to the EDGAR system that corporate researchers have relied on since the mid-1990s for easy access to 10-Ks, proxy statements and the like. The big selling point of IDEA is tagging. Companies (and mutual funds) will be required to prepare their filings so that key pieces of information are electronically labeled—using a system called XBRL—and thus can be easily retrieved and compared to corresponding data from other companies. The first interactive filings are expected to be available through IDEA late this year. EDGAR will stick around indefinitely as an archive for pre-interactive filings.

“With IDEA,” the SEC press release gushes, “investors will be able to instantly collate information from thousands of companies and forms, and create reports and analysis on the fly, in any way they choose.”

I just finished watching the webcast of Cox’s press conference earlier this week and came away with mixed feelings about IDEA. In one respect, it will be great to be able to readily extract specific nuggets of information. My concern is the emphasis being placed on disclosure as simply a collection of pieces of data. This may serve the needs of financial analysts and investors, but as a corporate researcher, I find that some of the most valuable portions of SEC filings are narratives rather than numbers—for example, the descriptions of a company’s operations, its competitive position and its legal problems that appear in 10-Ks.

As Cox finally mentioned about an hour into the press conference, tagging can be applied to text as well as numbers. Yet I can’t help worry that the direction the SEC is going in will tend to reduce narratives to bite-size portions that serve to diminish the full scope of disclosure. It was not comforting to hear William Lutz, the outside academic who is advising the SEC on a complete overhaul of its entire disclosure system, suggest during the press conference that the forms (10-K, 10-Q, etc.) companies are currently required to file will be phased out. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the impression Lutz and Cox gave is that future disclosure will be mainly quantitative.

This shift in focus from text to numbers would, I believe, increase the risk that company reporting on social and environmental matters, already inadequate, will be scaled back. That may not mean much for short-sighted investors, but it would be a major setback for corporate accountability.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/173 

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.