CIO Interview: Corey Booth of the SEC on Catching the Bad Guys

Corey Booth is working hard these days. The CIO of the Securities and Exchange Commission is busy installing new technologies to help companies better comply with regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act—and help SEC investigators analyze filings faster, more cheaply and more thoroughly. Senior Reporter Debra D’Agostino chatted with Booth to discuss some of the SEC’s tech initiatives.

CIO INSIGHT: What technology efforts are in the works at the SEC?

One of the big issues since Chairman Christopher Cox arrived has been interactive data, which essentially means making the filings themselves more useful. Companies are required to file electronically, but today, most documents that are filed with the SEC tend to be long text documents; they’re not particularly conducive for financial analysis because they aren’t searchable. So we’re exploring how to get information to the SEC that is more analytically useful “out of the box” by using things like XBRL [eXtensible Business Reporting Language].

How will that help?

It means that the data can be searched more easily and by more parameters than just keywords. Let’s say you’re an investor and want to do an analysis of a company. You can go to our Web site and pull up the company’s annual and quarterly reports with all the latest information. Those items come up on your screen and you get a nice picture of the firm’s expenses, profits, etc. That’s all well and good, but suppose you wanted to actually do some math on those numbers, or compare them with other companies. Right now, you’d essentially have to print those documents, retype the numbers into a spreadsheet and do the analysis yourself. We want to be able to do that with a few clicks of the mouse, because all the data we capture will be tagged in such a way that it’s analytically useful. Some companies are already voluntarily taking on this effort.

Sounds great for investors. But why would companies want to help out the SEC?

Well, to be honest, if we want to investigate someone, it’s not that difficult for us to retype those numbers. So I guess our point of view is that public companies shouldn’t fear giving better information. As a matter of fact, it might even help those companies. By providing that data they may get better research-analyst coverage, because it’s easier to do the analysis.

But what if a company doesn’t want their numbers analyzed? Are there still companies that are, for example, sending all their files in on paper?

We are eliminating that as an option. If they send us paper, we are going to have it scanned into a digital, searchable document. So, basically, they don’t have an option anymore of trying to sandbag us by pulling the truck up to our loading dock, as companies have done in the past. We have an outsourcing contract with a firm that can scan all the documents in a matter of weeks, in most cases. And since most investigations are multi-month or multiyear affairs, a few weeks on the front end doesn’t really affect us one way or another.

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