PHOENIX, Ariz. - Not unlike the buzz that has accompanied legions of other Internet-based opportunities, XBRL has everyone in the corporate world marveling at its potential to drive efficiencies and perhaps attract more customers. Well, almost everyone.
Known in longhand as eXtensible Business Reporting Language, the technology "tags" information for easy storage and retrieval. The Securities and Exchange Commission wants mutual funds to file their financial reports in XBRL so that investors can go online and compare investment options in an apples-to-apples environment. The Investment Company Institute, meanwhile, has taken that idea a step further and says it plans to lay the groundwork for a custom-designed XBRL taxonomy that goes beyond financial data and could lead to an environment where all fund prospectuses are online and easily searchable, retrievable and comparable.
It would go a long way, ICI President Paul Schott Stevens said, in moving disclosure from its costly, inefficient and ineffective paper-based method to one that is entirely online.
Industry experts familiar with the technology have said without reservation that XBRL could, indeed, streamline financial reporting and provide investors with useful information. But not every fund industry insider is completely sold on XBRL.
"It has the potential to improve efficiencies with respect to data gathering," offered Michael Koonce, general counsel to Evergreen Investments in Charlotte, N.C. He thinks cold data items like performance, fees and turnover rates would be particularly amenable to the XBRL tagging process. But a lot of other elements that go into a prospectus, like perhaps the portfolio manager's letter, wouldn't seem quite as adaptable, he said.
"While it would help, I don't see it as a huge, huge benefit," he said.
Barry Barbash, a former director of the SEC's division of investment management and now a partner with Willkie Farr & Gallagher in Washington, warned that any new disclosure effort must include fund intermediaries.
"It's not going to help anybody if there is all this information available to investors but intermediary channels aren't really watched, or included, in the disclosure that they use," he said.
And then there's still the liability conundrum, Barbash added, where funds are typically careful of what to put in a disclosure document because it could be turned into a document for a lawsuit.
"It is very new and a lot of work must be done," conceded ICI General Counsel Elizabeth Krentzman.