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The Hidden Risks in Financial Reporting

With over 200 million users worldwide, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is perhaps the most ubiquitous analysis and reporting tool on the planet. Business users with little or no programming experience can create powerful and incredibly complex analyses models in Excel. A Google search on the keywords “financial analysis spreadsheet” returns hundreds of results, including free templates for capital budgeting, risk valuation, cash flow, financial projections, option pricing, and break even analysis models. In fact, spreadsheets are being used everyday in businesses across the globe to drive critical business decisions...

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What We Know About Spreadsheet Errors

Although spreadsheet programs are used for small "scratchpad" applications, they are also used to develop many large applications. In recent years, we have learned a good deal about the errors that people make when they develop spreadsheets.

In general, errors seem to occur in a few percent of all cells, meaning that for large spreadsheets, the issue is how many errors there are, not whether an error exists. These error rates, although troubling, are in line with those in programming and other human cognitive domains. In programming, we have learned to follow strict development disciplines to eliminate most errors. Surveys of spreadsheet developers indicate that spreadsheet creation, in contrast, is informal, and few organizations have comprehensive policies for spreadsheet development.

Although prescriptive articles have focused on such disciplines as modularization and having assumptions sections, these may be far less important than other innovations, especially cell-by-cell code inspection after the development phase.

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