From idea to worldwide format for business information exchange
It is not often that someone has an idea one day and then, some 15 years later, that idea has turned into a standard used in almost every country around the world with a global consortium of over 250 leading organizations concerned with its development and implementation, but that is the story of XBRL.
Where it all Started (…. and for UBmatrix and UBPartner)
In 1997 Charlie Hoffman, a CPA with a passion for technology, read a book about XML and saw how other industries were applying this new technology standard to their businesses, and as an accountant he set out to discover how it could be implemented for financial statements and to improve the collection and reporting of financial data.
By 2000, the US accountants body, the AICPA, had become interested and an initial prototype was completed for what was at the time called XFRML (Extensible Financial Reporting Markup Language). Later it was agreed to change this name to XBRL, to make it clear that XBRL could be used for any business information exchange.
UBmatrix was established in 2002 by many of the leading players in the development and use of the new standard, including Charlie Hoffman, Herm Fisher and Frederic Chapus.
So started the long story of the development of XBRL and of UBmatrix XBRL technology.
The Early Adopters
In June of 2003, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) announced the first step in an interagency effort to modernise and streamline how US federal bank regulators collect, process and distribute quarterly financial reports.
FFIEC - First major adopter
In November 2004, approximately 500 people went to see what the excitement was all about at the 10th XBRL International conference in Brussels. The Bank of Spain and Banque de France were among the audience. They saw the potential of using XBRL to meet the emerging Basel II requirements in Europe. In many ways this was the first time that the vision of a global community working together on the common problem of how to improve the world of business reporting was seen in action.
The Bank of Spain and Banque de France began to pull in other European Banking Supervisors, such as the National Bank of Belgium, and the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) took up the challenge of using XBRL for the new European reporting frameworks - COREP (Risk Reporting) and FINREP (Financial Reporting).
XBRL in France
Frederic Chapus, Gilles Maguet and Bruno Tesniere
UBmatrix helped on both the development of CEBS COREP and FINREP taxonomies and on several of the initial implementations, providing both XBRL knowledge and software.
The Technology Adoption Curve
XBRL, like most communication technology, followed a slow and long gestation period and then a rapid increase in take-up as the number of players using the technology grows exponentially. Among the notable projects were:
- The Dutch SBR Project
- The Dutch government wanted to make it easier for Dutch businesses to report financial information for corporate taxes, annual accounts and statistics purposes. Their aim was to lower the cost of collection and to ensure that the data was made available in a usable format. The National Taxonomy Project (NTP) began to develop a core XBRL taxonomy and architecture to enable key government departments to use as the basis for their reports. After some teething problems, the benefits of XBRL were generally accepted and the initiative emerged into what was called the Standard Business Reporting (SBR) project with the goal of standardising all inter and intra government reporting.
- US SEC
- The US SEC had also continued to monitor XBRL’s progress and announced in September 2006 that it would spend $54 million to upgrade the EDGAR system and $5 million more on the development of the US GAAP taxonomy. In 2008, the initial U.S. GAAP taxonomy was published and the first phase of the 13,000 or so US listed companies began filing XBRL reports in June of 2009, 10 years from when the idea was born.
- UK HMRC
- In the UK there was a similar desire to reduce the cost of collecting corporate tax returns and to make the data available for analysis. However, the UK HMRC and Companies House were not keen to follow the US SEC and accept extension taxonomies from each firm that had to file. They had seen some of the issues this had caused filers, including the additional costs and they were also facing a much greater volume of reports, in all some 1.5m to 2m entities were expected to provide XBRL documents. Very late in the development project, the UK HMRC and Companies House decided to adopt the newly recommended standard for Inline XBRL, which combines XBRL tagged data and unstructured HTML documents. The benefit being that the same document could be read by humans and also the data captured by systems that could extract the XBRL. However, the UK did not adopt XBRL formulas to check the quality of the data being delivered. A decision that may still haunt them, when they come to analyse the data.
- Belgian Tax Office
- The Belgian government had not made such a large fanfare about XBRL as its neighbours in the Netherlands, but the number of projects had been quietly growing. The National Bank had been collecting both COREP and FINREP from the beginning of the CEBS project and the Central des Bilans (Business Register) had been collecting around 200,000 small company reports in XBRL every year. In 2009, the Belgian Tax Office decided to transform their collection system. The key ‘development’ was their extensive use of XBRL formulas to ensure that the data reported was validated as part of the collection process. With the help of Deloitte and UBmatrix, they developed a local taxonomy that included a full range of data quality checks, plus an extensive process to check that the business rules they defined in XBRL achieved the desired outcomes.
XBRL is now being adopted around the globe with projects in Japan, China, South America and many more. The range of applications is also broadening to cover areas outside regulatory reporting and some firms have begun to look at how XBRL might be used internally to improve management reporting.
XBRL projects around the world
In Europe, the EBA has reengineered the COREP and FINREP taxonomies into a harmonised taxonomy for all 27 European countries and EIOPA has developed the Solvency II taxonomy for the insurance sector. Both have adopted a more data oriented approach to developing a taxonomy using the Data Point methodology. Once again, these taxonomies have required that the XBRL standard be extended to include the ability to define table structures (Table Linkbases) and both taxonomies make heavy use of XBRL formulas.
UBPartner established to create European solutions
In 2012, UBmatrix and Edgar Online merged to become one of the largest providers of XBRL software and services. The combined firm was later acquired by RR Donnelly which now has a very significant investment in XBRL worldwide.
While XBRL is a common standard, it can be seen from the above brief history that, it has been deployed in many different ways to meet the specific, local requirements. In many ways its flexibility has been its strength, but also its weakness
The different approaches in Europe to those elsewhere in the world have required different tools to be developed and also different parts of the standard to be used. UBPartner was established in Europe to focus on the specific needs of the European projects. It uses a common XBRL technology platform, but develops additional software tools to address the requirements of projects such as the CRD4 directive, Solvency II and for initiatives such as Inline XBRL.
In the future, we can expect to see the demands on the XBRL standard to increase as new sets of requirements emerge from new areas of application. Other projects will adopt the new approaches initiated by the EBA and EIOPA for complex data intensive reports, while others will look to take advantage of the ability to read Inline XBRL reports for annual account submissions.
So Charlie’s original idea is still alive and well. It may have developed in ways that are unexpected, but the focus remains strong and clear – how to improve financial reporting and the use of the data that is collected.