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.

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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.