Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Future of Corporate Financial Reporting

There are several trends in technology that point the way to a new era in the field of financial reporting to investors.

The present method – financial statements drawn up in pre-conceived form, according to accepted standards, evolved out of the joint merchant ventures, principally in Italy during the 14th and 15th century. At that time, ships would depart with a load of goods for sale, financed by a group of investors and then when they returned, would split the profits, as reported to them by the accountants keeping records of the revenue, expenses and profits of the venture.

Although financial reporting has changed tremendously over time, (and expanded to include reporting on going concerns, rather than just particular ventures, which has led to some of the most intractable issues in accounting) at some levels, it has changed very little. Financial Reporting still revolves around the financial statements which still involve the profit and loss statement, balance sheet and various notes to enable them to be understood.

More recently, we have begun to see changes arising from inclusion in the reporting process of other forms of data, sometimes quite a variety – financial data points, production data, even environmental data. The idea is that investors can use technologies, including current analytical tools, to analyse the data and gain enough insight to form a basis for their decisions.

This trend has manifested in part through corporate websites, many of which have included in their Investor Relations Section such items as data banks and data tools. There has been some take up on these disclosures, but it has been slow. The tools remain a bit limited for serious analysis.

However, this is changing rapidly with the advent of Artificial Intelligence, which, along with Natural Language Processing, is being used as the core of some new tools for financial analysis. Some are even useful for working with big data, including identifying useful data to analyse. Also, these tools can be used to analyse the massive amounts of data that exist even in conventional annual reports, which extend to hundreds of pages of complex data. Few investors and even serious analysts sit down are diligently read all of these reports anymore; they use tools that draw out what they want. AI fits the bill beautifully.

For the companies doing the reporting, this is a game changer.  Data just needs to be made available and the investors and analysts will do the rest. Financial statements will not be eliminated, they will just be part of the data. In fact, this has already happened. Just look at the IR section of any big public company’s website.

That leads us to a second point. Much of the data now available is not amenable to electronic evaluation. Much of the reporting is still done on the assumption that someone is actually going to read the reports. This is a prime area where reporting has not changed since the 14th century. Perpetuation of the paper-paradigm way of thinking.

The fact is the data being reported needs to be in electronic form. Sometimes just excel spreadsheets will suffice. But this is very limited to numbers and modern reporting is so much more than numbers.

The data needs to be not only electronic but in a standardized form that can be read by other computers using a variety of analytical tools. Throughout most of the world the use of XBRL has been expanding to meet this goal. Canada stands out as one of the few countries that has not done this. The US, China, most other Asian countries, Russia, India, all use XBRL. In 2020, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) will require all European countries to use XBRL for their reporting. Many already do so.

So, in this new world of financial reporting, we have large amounts of structured and unstructured data being reported by companies, key elements of which are in standardized form and AI being used to identify and analyze the pertinent data for particular investor and business decisions. This is the direction of financial reporting. Very different from the 15th century. And the 20th.


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