Look east for accounting’s next big thing

The Anglo-dominated accounting industry could soon have a Chinese flavour.

The emergence of Chinese banks is well documented but soon it will be the country’s accounting firms that rise to global prominence.

China’s accounting firms are being forced to localise in a move designed to end foreign control. This will largely affect what is known in the industry as the ‘Big Four’ – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – who are led and largely controlled by expatriates and foreign partners.

The Ministry of Finance (MoF) has just released rules requiring all accounting firms to localise by August. This means they must be led by local citizens and ensure the proportion of foreign partners does not exceed 40 per cent. By 2017, this drops to 20 per cent.

The rules are designed to place control of the largest firms into the hands of Chinese and ensure voting rights are dominated by locally-qualified accountants.

The ‘localisation’ of the Big Four has been widely anticipated and the timeline provided is more generous than many experts predicted.

It’s an important step in the rise of China’s accounting industry because the Big Four are the last great bastion of foreign-managed firms, with market-leader PwC approximately 3.5 times the size of China’s largest domestic firm.

Number Two

This year, China will eclipse the UK as the second largest accounting industry by headcount. In 2007, the UK’s leading 40 firms had 30,000 more accountants than China but in 2011 the difference was only 5,400, according to the International Accounting Bulletin, a publication that analyses accounting markets.

And, China’s workforce has grown by 166 per cent in the past five years compared with 113 per cent in the UK.

The Big Four and Grant Thornton are still bigger in the UK but their Chinese counterparts are catching up quickly. BDO, RSM International, Baker Tilly International, PKF International and Nexia International already have larger Chinese workforces.

Chinese ‘super firms’

The government’s plan for its accounting industry is to produce Chinese ‘super firms’ that can compete head-on with the PwCs and Deloittes of this world. These firms are to become ‘homegrown’ global advisers to Chinese companies expanding abroad.

To do this, the MoF has ‘encouraged’ large Chinese firms to aggressively grow via M&A with like-minded firms, which has led to a flurry of consolidation in the past three years.

The MoF is encouraging Chinese firms to partner with global ‘mid-tier’ accounting networks outside of the Big Four, such as BDO, Grant Thornton and RSM. The aim is that these global networks will help Chinese firms develop audit methodologies and international skills in accounting and auditing. In return, the networks gain a strong Chinese firm for the referral of work in and out of one of the most important economies.

This has led to China becoming one of the least concentrated accounting markets. If you take the largest 40 firms in China, the Big Four earn 59 per cent of market revenue. In the US, the Big Four earns 81 per cent and globally their share is 70 per cent.

It is conceivable that the next 10-20 years, the global accounting industry could revert back to a Big Five or Big Six, with a couple of Chinese-backed players.

The traditionally Anglo-dominated accounting industry could soon have a Chinese flavour.

Arvind Hickman is the  editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Photograph: Getty Images

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.