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SEC No Closer to IFRS Taxonomy Approval for XBRL

Tammy Whitehouse | October 23, 2012

More than a year after all U.S. publicly traded companies were required to provide their financial statements formatted in XBRL, the Securities and Exchange Commission still hasn't approved a taxonomy for use by companies that prepare their financial statements under International Financial Reporting Standards -- and there's no clear path or time line for the SEC to do so.

While the SEC is uncommitted to an IFRS taxonomy, IFRS filers are still exempt from the XBRL requirement. “The design differences between the U.S. GAAP and IFRS taxonomies remain,” says SEC spokesman John Nester. “We are hopeful that we will arrive at a solution and are committed to continue to explore possible solutions, but we are not able to suggest a time frame at this point.”

It's not a question of quality between the U.S. GAAP taxonomy and the IFRS taxonomy, says Nester. The two taxonomies are just different, and the SEC is trying to decide on how to strike an appropriate balance. “The differences between the two taxonomies can represent different, but equally acceptable, technical design choices,” he says. “We recognize that design choices can be a delicate balancing act between the burden to the preparer to tag the information and the benefit to the investor derived from efficient access to the data.”

XBRL is the interactive data format that all public companies are required to follow to submit their financial statements. Under a three-year phase-in, the smallest public companies and foreign private issuers were required to begin submitting their financial statements in XBRL in 2011. However, the SEC gave IFRS filers a pass because the Commission had not yet approved an IFRS taxonomy for IFRS filers to follow. More than a year later, the SEC appears no closer to a solution.

Early on, the SEC expressed concerns to the IASC Foundation, which manages the IFRS taxonomy, hoping to see a greater number of tags or concepts in the IFRS taxonomy to minimize the need for companies to produce customized extensions that nibble at comparability. The foundation responded with some taxonomy revisions, including some tags for common reporting practices intended not necessarily to tie directly to accounting standards but to common ways that companies report a number of typical elements in their financial statements.

More recently, however, the foundation says it has heard little from the SEC about making further changes to the taxonomy or producing more tags, says Olivier Servais, director of XBRL activities for the IASC Foundation. “It was a very long time ago that we heard from SEC on this specific topic,” Servais says. He adds that XBRL experts in both GAAP and IFRS have noticed that companies reporting under IFRS and GAAP tend to report an equivalent number of concepts and extensions, even though the GAAP taxonomy contains about 17,000 elements and the IFRS taxonomy contains about 4,000.

Servais also points out that the SEC nor any regulator has authority over the taxonomy to require any particular changes or approaches that would make the taxonomy compatible with their own regulatory needs. “There are an increasing number of regulators who are taking the taxonomy as is or creating extensions that reflect local or jurisdictional specific requirements,” he says. The SEC did not say what specific measures it was taking to arrive at a taxonomy that can be used in the United States.