The Chinese government agreed to allow the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, to access audit documents of some Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges, treasury secretary Jack Lew said on Thursday, easing a dispute between Washington and Beijing over corporate fraud oversight.
The SEC has been demanding, for several years, access to audit papers of some Chinese companies trading on U.S. markets, following allegations of accounting misconduct in those firms, which have led to billions of dollars in losses. However, auditors' refusal to comply with the SEC’s demands for fear of violating Chinese secrecy laws, has been blocking U.S. investigations.
“China’s securities regulator announced that it will begin providing certain requested audit work papers to our market regulators, an important step towards resolving a long-standing impasse on enforcement cooperation related to companies that are listed in the United States," Lew told a news conference in Washington, after high-level talks between the U.S. and China concluded on Thursday, Reuters reported.
The SEC is currently involved in an administrative trial seeking a judicial warning against the Chinese affiliates of the Big Four audit firms -- Deloitte, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Ernst & Young -- and BDO, for refusing to turn over audit documents, according to Reuters.
Details of how much data Chinese regulators have agreed to hand over to the U.S. remain unclear, but the SEC indicated in court this week that the first set of documents would be linked to SEC’s investigation of the delisted China-based Longtop Financial Technologies Ltd (NYSE:LFT), which was charged in November 2011 for failing to submit accurate financial reports with the regulators.
Longtop was placed under scrutiny following allegations that the company was overstating the extent of its business, prompting Deloitte to quit as the company’s auditor, after admitting that it had encountered irregularities in the company’s accounts.
However, doubts remain over China’s commitment to act on its promise to hand over documents, as the China Securities Regulatory Commission has a reputation of not responding to requests for assistance after similar promises, an SEC official was quoted as saying by Reuters.
If China delivers on its promise, it would be the second time this year that the two countries would be cooperating in a U.S. crackdown on accounting fraud. In May, the U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board obtained Chinese consent to allow the agency to access audit documents to help probe auditors.
About 400 Chinese firms trade securities in the U.S., of which at least 115 have been audited by Chinese arms of the Big Four audit firms, according to a Bloomberg report published in December 2012.