In a first, US watchdog gets full access to audit Chinese firms

It marks a victory for US regulators and relief for Chinese firms like Alibaba that faced delisting from US exchanges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden
Washington and Beijing have been locked in a heated trade and technology war [File: Nicolas Asfouri and Nicholas Kamm/AFP]

The United States Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) says it has gotten full access to inspect and investigate accounting firms in China for the first time ever, removing the risk that around 200 Chinese companies could be kicked off US stock exchanges.

The statement on Thursday from the PCAOB, the US accounting watchdog, marks a victory for US regulators and a relief for Chinese firms, including Alibaba, facing delisting amid rocky relations between the world’s largest economies. Washington and Beijing have been locked in a heated trade and technology war.

“For the first time in history, we are able to perform full and thorough inspections and investigations to root out potential problems and hold firms accountable to fix them,” said PCAOB Chair Erica Williams.

“This falls into the category of a game-changing view of Chinese companies because the threat of their delisting seems to have been eliminated,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at B Riley Financial.

US-listed shares of Chinese companies started trading higher amid the news but gave up gains due to broader financial market pressure.

The PCAOB, which oversees registered public accounting firms around the world, said late last year that Chinese authorities had prevented the watchdog from thoroughly inspecting and investigating in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing reached a landmark deal in August to settle a long-running dispute over auditing compliance of US-listed Chinese firms. Authorities in China have long been reluctant to let overseas regulators inspect local accounting firms, citing national security concerns.

US lawmakers in 2020 agreed to legislation that would remove Chinese companies from US stock exchanges unless they adhere to American auditing standards.

The deal granted PCAOB full access to Chinese audit working papers with no redactions, the right to take testimony from audit company staff in China and sole discretion to select what companies it inspects.

Investors and attorneys have been awaiting news from the PCAOB on whether US inspectors received the access promised.

Thawing relations

In separate news on Thursday, the Biden administration added Chinese memory chipmaker YMTC and 21 “major” Chinese players in the artificial intelligence chip industry to a trade blacklist, broadening its crackdown on China’s chip industry.

But in a decision that signals renewed cooperation between Washington and Beijing, the commerce department also removed a subsidiary of WuXi Biologics, a company that makes ingredients for AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, and 25 other Chinese entities from the so-called unverified list thanks to successful site visits.

In its statement, the PCAOB said it exercised sole discretion to select firms for audit and had selected two, KPMG Huazhen LLP in China and PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong.

PCAOB staff identified “numerous potential deficiencies” in their inspection work, the board’s chair said, adding that the inspection reports will be finalised and made public next year.

“Today’s announcement should not be misconstrued in any way as a clean bill of health for firms in mainland China and Hong Kong,” PCAOB’s Williams said.

She declined to specify the types of deficiencies, but said they are in line with those audit inspectors have seen during first-time inspections elsewhere.

The determination announced on Thursday resets a three-year clock for compliance, said Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees the PCAOB.

In a statement, he said that Chinese authorities will need to give PCAOB “full access for inspections and investigations in 2023 and beyond”.

Source: Reuters