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What’s in a Dash? – Getting XBRL Right

April 8, 2011

Financial Statements typically consist of line item descriptions and amounts for each period presented, but in some periods a dash is shown rather than a specific amount. What does a dash mean and can it be tagged with an XBRL taxonomy element? If so, how should the dash be tagged?

Before determining how to tag a dash, it is important to think about the role of  line item tags within the US GAAP Taxonomy. When a concept is tagged, all of the line item facts for that concept (i.e. in that line item or row) are tagged with the same element no matter what calendar they are in (i.e. what point in time or period of time the facts relate to). Since all of the amounts in that row or line are tagged with the same element, then any dash in that row is associated with the element as well. However, the dash is unique and needs additional consideration.

Companies may use a dash to represent different concepts. Most often it is thought to represent an insignificant undisclosed amount. Other times the dash may represent zero. It is essential to understand what the dash actually means before deciding how to tag it. If the dash actually represents a zero, then it can be tagged as a zero in the same way any other amount is tagged. If the dash represents an insignificant or immaterial undisclosed amount, then it needs a nil=true attribute. By assigning the nil=true to the period that contains the dash, the amount is understood to be “null” or “nil” (empty – not zero). The calendar with the nil=true attribute renders as a blank or empty field in the SEC’s viewer.

When the dash actually represents a zero, then a zero is tagged (not a dash) and the nil=true attribute does not apply. In this case, the amount is a zero and renders as a zero for the period that contains a dash in the traditional filing.

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