String of Chinese companies could leave US

Auditors feel strain of Sino-US stand off.

China faces a conundrum - either back down to US demands to inspect Chinese audit firms or risk further damaging the credibility of its companies and auditors abroad.

The long-standing feud between US and Chinese audit authorities, which has been simmering for the past few years, is coming to a head.

Last summer, nearly 30 audit firms were forced to resign from auditing Chinese companies listed in the US due to dodgy accounting and the exodus has continued since.

A lack of confidence in Chinese companies is diminishing the value of their stocks and leaving investors wary of pouring capital into unreliable accounts.

The US hopes to reach an agreement with China that would allow it to inspect Chinese audit papers of US listed companies.

So far, China has resisted US overtures, preventing Chinese firms from handing over audit papers. The world’s second largest economy does not like foreign powers meddling in its affairs and attempts by US authorities to place legal pressure on firms has hardened the resistance.

US law requires all firms that audit listed companies to undergo regular audit inspections by the US audit watchdog, Public Company Accounting and Oversight Board (PCAOB). Although the US has agreements with most jurisdictions that allow joint inspection, China is not the only exception. France, Denmark and Belgium also deny access but their companies are not embroiled in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations.

To date, most of the attention had focused on one high profile case. Despite taking out legal action, the SEC has failed to retrieve audit papers from Deloitte’s Shanghai office in an investigation of software company Longtop Financial Technologies. Former Deloitte client Longtop falsified financial records and has come under the scope of US investigators.

It is understood US authorities have approached other Chinese firms for audit paperwork, including PwC.

The regulation tug-of-war places global accounting firms with Chinese offices in a tight spot.

Chinese law prevents them from directly dealing with other jurisdiction and all requests for audit papers must go through China’s Ministry of Finance, which so far isn’t playing ball.

At present, Mainland Chinese affiliates of global firms have 130 clients listed on US stock exchanges with Deloitte (48 clients), PwC and KPMG (28 clients each) top of the pile.

This number is already under threat.

Global firms are sensitive to the spread of reputational damage and would quickly drop a client (Chinese or otherwise) if they suspected it lacked credibility.

Firms may also start leaving Chinese clients if US government pressure begins affecting their US businesses.

What is clear is US authorities are losing patience with the impasse, although negotiations are ongoing.

If a solution isn’t found soon, Chinese firms could be banned from auditing US-listed companies. This could lead to a string of companies leaving US capital markets and heading back to Shanghai, or elsewhere.

A better outcome would be that US and Chinese authorities end the posturing and thrash out a mutually beneficial solution.

But don’t hold your breath.

Chinese companies face conundrum. Photograph: Getty Images.

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder