Two financial regulators in the US, the SEC and the PCAOB, have joined the trade war of their country and combined it with their struggle for better accounting practices in China, writes Beida accounting professor Paul Gillis at his weblog. While the complaints are not new or surprising, he wonders about the timing, Gillis adds.
For those have not been following the issue, the PCAOB is mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley to inspect accounting firms that audit U.S. listed companies, including foreign accounting firms. When the PCAOB attempted to come to China to inspect firms (mainly local affiliates of the Big Four) auditing U.S. listed companies China blocked them on the basis of national sovereignty. Attempts to find alternatives also foundered on arguments that the working papers might contain state secrets. The PCAOB was also blocked from inspecting Hong Kong firms to the extent the work related to the mainland.
After the wave of frauds by U.S. listed Chinese companies in the past ten years, the SEC finally got fed up with the intransigence of the Big Four firms about producing their working papers and brought charges against the firms. The firms argued to a SEC administrative trial judge that they were caught between a rock and hard place, having to decide whether to break Chinese or American law, and the judge appropriately observed that if that were the case, it was only because the firms put themselves in that position when they decided to do U.S. audits for Chinese companies. The judge threw the book at the Big Four, and BDO. The firms appealed and settled with the SEC paying a $500,000 penalty each and promising not to sin again.
The PCAOB has succeeded in agreeing on enforcement cooperation with Chinese regulators, but has been unable to reach agreement on inspections, arguably a more important issue for investors than enforcement. Inspection are used to make certain that audits of U.S. listed companies comply with U.S. auditing standards, which is especially important in a market like China, where accounting practices are often “flexible”.
The primary champion of getting PCAOB inspections in China was former PCAOB chairman James Doty, who together with the rest of the PCAOB board and much of its management was forced out in a purge after the Trump election. This is the first comment on the issue that I am aware of by Doty’s replacement, Republican loyalist William Duhke III.
The remedy to China’s refusal to allow inspections has been what is referred to as the nuclear option. The PCAOB could deregister accounting firms that it cannot inspect. The consequence of that would be that most U.S. listed Chinese companies (and some multinational firms) would be unable to file audited financial statements with the SEC and without being granted an exception would be delisted from U.S. exchanges. This has been viewed as a step too far for the PCAOB, since it would likely hurt investors in the Chinese companies. Most of these investors are Americans, since it is difficult for Chinese to buy shares of companies listed in the U.S. because of currency restrictions. The result of a mass delisting would likely be a surge of IPOs on the Hong Kong exchange.
I suspect the SEC and PCAOB are raising this issue at this time because of the trade war. Allowing inspections would not seem to be a huge concession for China to make in a settlement of the trade war. Threatening to cut off access to U.S. capital markets for Chinese companies is yet another way for the U.S. to escalate the trade war.
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