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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.