Confidence in the American securities and accountancy regulators was not raised, w
hen a press release on December 3 announced -- under the headline “SEC Charges China Affiliates of Big Four Accounting Firms …In Refusing to Produce Documents” – a proceeding against the five largest global networks.
For the first time in its eleven-year history, this column calls upon a graphic to illustrate the folly of a gang that couldn’t count straight:
The PCAOB has been stymied for a decade in its futile attempts to enforce in China its asserted mandate under Sarbanes/Oxley to inspect and obtain working papers from auditors, including those in foreign countries, which audit more than twenty percent of a registrant’s assets or revenue (here). And the SEC itself has been piddling along with company-specific subpoena enforcement and administrative proceedings against Deloitte and its Shanghai affiliate.
So now they have called in the heavy artillery, in the person of Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, who says that non-complying firms “face serious sanctions.”
Khuzami cannot be faulted for zealotry. He arrived on the scene of an agency whose Cox-era somnolence had missed not only Bernie Madoff’s predations on the domestic front but the internationally destructive tsunami of “reverse mergers” by which Chinese companies gained access to the world’s capital markets. That scorecard, a decade late and billions short, now includes more than 50 de-listings by the SEC and 40 fraud actions – and, elsewhere, a flurry of civil litigations, and most recently an agreement by Ernst & Young to settle civil litigation (but not a disciplinary proceeding) relating to Sino-Forest, by agreeing to pay C$ 117 million, the largest auditor settlement in Canadian history.
(As an aside, those disposed to see darkly conspiratorial revolving doors in the place of Chinese fire drills will note that this is the same Khuzami whose predecessor at SEC Enforcement from 1998 to 2001, Richard Walker, thereafter went in-house at Deutsche Bank, where he hired Khuzami in 2002. So the latter, before becoming the top American securities cop in 2009, was on-scene at DB when the bank – as now reported – according to three whistle-blowers concealed losses of up to $ 12 billion for failure to “mark-to-market” the exposure gap on a notional $ 130 billion of exotic derivatives known as “leveraged super-seniors.”)
Calling in Khuzami’s troops may look like the last act of desperate regulators – but it will actually play as the next act in “The Comedy of Errors.”
That’s not because it’s so little so late. Or because frustration of the PCAOB’s aspirations to access Chinese auditors and work papers would attract retaliation against their own ambitious plans to re-structure the global audit market by building and unleashing global-scale Chinese audit firms – an ambition otherwise unachievable both for want of competence in personnel and standards but also because, in reciprocal hostility, other countries will be no less protective of their local prerogatives.
It’s mainly that the US regulators’ only weapon of significance – banning Chinese affiliates of the large global accounting networks from qualifying to work on audits of American-listed companies – would ripple far beyond the toxic roster of China-based companies.
There are potential consequences for global-scale companies with significant operations in China that go far beyond the inability of the PCAOB to inspect their local audit firms, whether or not maneuvered to keep below the 20% threshold.
Consider just two examples: Caterpillar, whose annual filing with the SEC does not set forth results by geography but discloses total 2011 sales of over $ 60 billion and elsewhere reports its China sales to be 3% of its total. Or HSBC, which does report by region including $ 3.6 billion in profits from China in 2011 and whose mainland Chinese operations include 133 outlets including 27 branches, even after the announced sale of its interest in giant insurer Ping An.
A barrier to the use of Chinese audit firms would make it impossible for those companies to include audited results from their Chinese operations in their global accounts. The result would be top-level consolidated financial statements with a huge unaudited portion, and auditors forced in their opinions to confront the professional standards for limitations on their audit scope.
Across the globe from KPMG in London and its top-level opinion on HSBC, to PwC in Peoria, Illinois for Caterpillar – unable to rely on their excommunicated Asian brethren – auditors would have no choice but to use the dread “qualify or disclaim” language -- never seen for a public company because anathema under the rules of the SEC itself.
Or, in extremis, PCAOB de-registration of the whole of an audit network deemed non-compliant would render a company’s entire financial filing unacceptable.
Restoration of adult-level expectations and the pursuit of a non-litigated resolution process is essential, although a fading hope – since calling in the police as a last resort means an escalation of hostilities due to the one-dimensional DNA of their approach to problem-solving.
For good reason, then – under the latest blows from SEC Enforcement – the large accounting firms must feel like a bunch of nails in a hammer-testing factory.
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