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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.