Financial reporting: rise of the machines

Imagine a financial reporting system that relies on spreadsheet calculations
and ‘ruler and eyeball’ manual processes for data management and validation.
Then consider how one significant spreadsheet error could impact the integrity
of key regulatory, financial and investor reporting data. It’s a risk scenario
that seems counterintuitive to the vision of improving financial reporting
transparency and control, but one inherent in the back-office infrastructure of
many mutual fund and hedge fund shops.

Yes, it’s astonishing. Spreadsheets, manual processes and disparate systems
still define the data management infrastructure in many fund shops. Error prone,
inflexible and lacking scalability and process control, these reporting systems
can no longer meet mounting reporting challenges in the fund industry. Driven
largely by industry demands for transparency and control, the need for data
consolidation and automation has never been greater.

Spreadsheets are still used pervasively in the back office. A June 2008
survey of fund administration managers and top executives found that half of the
companies interviewed use spreadsheets for more than 25% of their fund
administration work and 76% want to decrease their reliance on spreadsheets. And
that’s not surprising—especially when factoring in the risk of errors. Research
by a major accounting firm found over 90% of spreadsheets larger than 150 rows
contained at least one significant formula mistake.

Greater transparency will mean new reports, additional disclosures, and more
frequent reporting. Firms that still rely on manual processes and spreadsheets
for financial and regulatory reporting simply won’t have the flexibility to
scale to meet the challenge; their systems are too “brittle” and error prone to
manage the load of reporting already in place.

The drive for transparency and control comes at a time when fund
administrators are also dealing with a myriad of strategic challenges – from
administering new, complex instruments to managing global regulatory and
accounting compliance, such as the impending IFRS and US GAAP convergence.

The key to back-office control lies in streamlining and automating data
management and report generation – from the collection of data, the creation of
reports, the confirmation of report data and the delivery of information to
regulators, auditors and investors. Such reports include a range of financial
statements, regulatory reports and NAV figures.

There are various steps you can take to bring more transparency to your
financial reporting systems and enable data consolidation and process

Understand and document your objectives

With multiple stakeholders involved, setting objectives is a complex task.
But the energy invested up front will pay off in the long run by helping to
ensure your efforts are aligned with your company’s strategic goals. Setting
successful objectives involves:

* Identifying the right stakeholders (internal providers of data, fund
administration staff and any internal/external clients, and outside auditors
that rely on financial reporting).

* Prioritizing business goals that are driving the decision – for example,
data control, risk mitigation, cost reduction or elevating service levels.

* Making sure senior leadership is aligned with the department-level team,
for example, where the team doing the work thinks the initiative is about
increasing efficiency, while senior management only wants to reduce costs.

Strategic thinking

Think strategically about how your company’s business plans, regulation and
customer expectations will create increased demand for financial reporting
flexibility. Consider how:

* Internal and external consumers will place greater demands for more timely,
flexible and accurate reporting on your company.

* The need to quickly and efficiently adapt to new regulations will impact
reporting demands, staff resources and the ability to scale.

* The proliferation of new and more complex instrument types will create
challenges for greater reporting flexibility.

Conduct a gap analysis

Analysis will enable your company to compare its current state with its
desired state. At its core are two questions – where are we and where do we want
to be? As you move to develop an automated financial reporting system, a gap
analysis can help map current processes and costs to what your processes and
costs will look like post-implementation.

It can also help identify all manual processes in your current state and
where they can be eliminated, while quantifying the variances between your
current state and desired state, thereby providing valuable ROI data to justify
your investment.

What is automated and what is not?

With financial reporting software, there are different degrees of automation.
If your goal is to mitigate risk in the back office by eliminating manual
processes, you must understand what aspects of the financial reporting process
can and cannot be automated. Consider the entire financial reporting process –
from the collection of raw data from your accounting system to the delivery of a
published document or electronic report.

Back-office fund administration is evolving – fast. Just a few years ago, the
concept of automated financial reporting was embraced by just a few early
adopters who stepped forward to take a leadership role in shaping the future of
fund administration. Back then, the innovators, unconstrained by conventional
thinking, were envisioning what the world of fund administration could be today.
Their insight has resulted in new ways to gain control, reduce costs and improve
efficiency by automating the data collection, creation, confirmation, and
delivery process.

What will the future for fund accounting and administration look like? As you
embark on your endeavor to improve transparency and control, remember you are
making a long-term strategic decision. Your challenge is to implement a system
that will help you meet your company’s immediate needs, as well as your needs
for whatever comes next.

Kirk Botula is chief operating officer of Confluence, a global leader in
fund administration automation

Related reading