中国股在美国前路黯淡 / Storm Clouds Darken Over US-Listed Chinese Stocks

中国股在美国前路黯淡

大概半年前我在这个博客中写过一篇《中国股在美国乌云压顶》的文章,当时一场危机正逼近中国在美上市的110支概念股。

几个月过去,这场危机愈演愈烈,丝毫看不出任何转机。

问题的核心是作为监管机构的美国证券交易委员会(SEC)要求查阅九家中国上市公司的审计工作报告,这九家公司的主营业务都在中国国内,目前因涉嫌欺诈正在接受调查。

卷入此事的五家会计师事务所是美国会计监察机构——美国公众公司会计监督委员会(PCAOB)的注册单位,此前他们拒绝提供审计工作报告,称原因是中国的保密法对审计资料施以保护。

作为回应,SEC坚称这五家事务所违反了萨班斯法案。

SEC、PCAOB以及中国证监会已就此次危机展开了长达数月的拉锯战,但双方均没有明显的松动。

12月初,SEC孤注一掷,对这五家会计师事务所采取法律行动,其中也包括全球四大会计师事务所在中国的分支机构。

SEC宣布最新行动当日,三分之二的中国概念股股价跳水,但后来又有部分反弹。

SEC的最新动作是要求法院判决这些会计师事务所是否应该接受处罚,并/或不准在SEC管辖范围内承接业务。

其潜在后果是,假如这些审计公司被剥夺了审计服务权,那所有中国企业都将被迫退市。

第二个问题是,在此种情况下,这些审计公司是否也会失去为在华经营的美国跨国公司提供审计服务的权利。

在七月发表的博客中,我提到了德高望重的保罗•利斯教授(Paul Gillis),当时他预测在美上市的中国股只有20%的可能会退市。但最近他把对这种可能的预测提高到了80%。

无论结局如何,中国企业和国家的声誉都已遭受重创。一旦中国企业在美国全面退市,美国作为全球主要资本来源的地位也将元气大伤。

很多关于这一问题的先期报告都将矛头指向了某些参与作空的美国研究机构。的确,他们是重要的催化剂,至少部分是利益使然,但问题的广度和深度却不止于此。

除了SEC正在调查九家中国企业存在的欺诈现象外,很多在美上市的中国企业也游离在监管的灰色地带。他们都是在开曼群岛等地注册的离岸公司,本身为可变利益实体(VIE),组建的目的就是为了绕开中国对外资参与部分行业的限制。

迄今为止,中国政府对VIE结构一直保持宽容,这对很多快速发展的中国企业堪称福音,特别是教育和互联网企业。如今,SEC与中国证监会之间的僵局已令这类企业及其投资方陷入焦虑,因为它将VIE暴露在了聚光灯下。一些观察家认为官方的忍耐或许已经走到尽头。

灰色地带诱发欺诈。投资者的信心需要一定的透明度,要对有效监管能在发生欺诈诉讼时及时到位充满信心。

保密法是任何国家法律法规的有效组成部分。另一方面,寻求IPO的企业也应作好按照上市地区法律法规行事的准备。

专业观察家不清楚化解现有僵局到底需要多长时间,也不了解中国证监会、SEC和PCAOB可能作出哪些妥协。

同时,如果还有人有可能从中获益的话,那就是香港,因为那里是中国概念股和IPO企业的另一个优选上市地点。

Storm Clouds Darken Over US-Listed Chinese Stocks

As I first wrote in this blog nearly six months ago (“Storm Clouds Linger Over US Listed Chinese Stocks“), there is a crisis looming over all 110 Chinese concept stocks listed in the U.S..

In recent months, that crisis has grown in magnitude, with no resolution in sight.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the US regulator, the SEC, has requested access to the audit working papers of nine listed Chinese companies, whose main operations are in China, which are involved in fraud investigations.

The five accounting firms involved, all of whom are registered with the US accounting watchdog regulator, Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), have refused to provide the working papers. Their stated reason for refusal is based on the view that China’s secrecy laws protect audit materials.

The SEC in turn maintains the five are in violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

The SEC, PCAOB and China’s Security Regulatory Commission have been in a back and forth dialogue on this crisis for many months, with neither side showing much flexibility.

Early in December, the SEC upped the ante by beginning a formal legal action against the five accounting firms, which include the Chinese member firms of the Big Four global accounting firms.

The day the latest SEC action was announced, share prices of two-thirds of the China concept stocks plunged, although they have since recovered some of the lost ground.

The latest SEC action is asking the court to decide whether the audit firms should be punished and/or and denied the right to practice within the SEC’s jurisdiction.

The potential upshot is that, if the audit firms lose their right to perform audit services, all Chinese companies could in effect be forced to delist.

A secondary question is whether in such a case these audit firms would also lose their right to perform audit services for US multinational company operations in China.

In my original post in July, I quoted the respected Professor Paul Gillis (www.ChinaLawBlog.com) as saying he foresaw only a 20% chance that all US-listed Chinese stocks might be forced to delist. More recently he has revised that estimate upwards, to an 80% chance.

In either case, the reputational damage to Chinese companies and to China is already very serious. In the event of a blanket delisting of Chinese companies in the U.S., the US reputation as a leading source of global capital would also suffer.

Many early reports about this problem put much of the blame on several US research houses which were also engaged in short-selling. They were indeed important catalysts, driven at least in part by vested interests, but the problem is much broader and deeper than that.

Apart from some instances of alleged fraud at the nine companies which are the subject of SEC investigations, many US listed Chinese companies exist in a gray regulatory area. They are offshore companies incorporated in places like the Cayman Islands, with variable interest entities (VIEs), structured to avoid Chinese regulatory restrictions in industry segments where foreign investment is not permitted.

The VIE structure has been tolerated by the Chinese government thus far, which is fortunate for many high-flying Chinese companies, especially in the education and internet sectors. The current SEC-CSRC impasse has made many of those companies and their investors nervous because it has put the VIE structure under a very bright spotlight. Some observers speculate that official tolerance for it may be waning.

Gray areas invite fraud. Investor confidence requires a certain degree of transparency, and confidence that effective oversight is in place when allegations of fraud occur.

Secrecy is a valid part of any nation’s laws and regulations. On the other hand, companies seeking an IPO must be prepared to play by the rules and regulations in the jurisdiction they choose to list in.

Expert observers are unclear on how long it will take to resolve the current impass, or what concessions the CSRC, SEC and PCAOB might be prepared to offer.

In the meantime, if there is a potential beneficiary, it may well be Hong Kong, which is the most promising alternative listing site for China concept stocks as well as many other new Chinese IPOs in the pipeline.


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