New SEC Web tool is fun, but its data are limited

The Baltimore Sun

The Securities and Exchange Commission just launched its Financial Explorer software giving Web users new options to manipulate and interpret financial information filed by U.S. companies.

"At the click of a mouse, Financial Explorer lets investors automatically generate financial ratios, graphs, and charts depicting important information from financial statements," the SEC says. "Information including earnings, expenses, cash flows, assets, and liabilities can be analyzed and compared across competing public companies."

Try it at www.sec.gov/xbrl.

This is the latest phase of the SEC's attempt to make corporate filings interactive. You can call up executive pay totals and rank fat cat emoluments by industry, company revenue or market capitalization. The software measures stock-option values two different ways and adds up all the compensation.

You can chart business results over time - not just sales and earnings but a couple of dozen indicators including fairly esoteric stuff such as equity income in unconsolidated affiliates.

It's fun, but it'll be a long time before Financial Explorer allows ordinary investors to "access vast quantities of statistics they can manipulate just like the pros do now." That's what Jack T. Ciesielski, publisher of the Baltimore-based The Analyst's Accounting Observer, said would theoretically be possible when the SEC committed to this two years ago.

For the system to work, companies must electronically tag data when they file it. Tagging is voluntary and many filers don't do it. Even for the ones that do, the data go back only a year or two, to judge from the companies I called up. And you can't play with mutual fund data yet. That may end up proving to be the most interesting tool for the common investor.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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