Some big-name Chinese stocks including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc. face the prospect of getting kicked off the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq if they refuse to let U.S. regulators see their financial audits. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has started the process, compelled by a 2020 law, and investors have started to pay attention. So has China, which moved to potentially clear a big hurdle that stymied U.S. regulators for years.
1. Why does the U.S. want access to audits?
The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted in the wake of the Enron Corp. accounting scandal, required that all public companies have their audits inspected by the U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. According to the SEC, more than 50 jurisdictions work with the board to allow the required inspections, while two historically have not: China and Hong Kong. The long-simmering issue morphed into a political one as tensions between Washington and Beijing ratcheted up during the administration of President Donald Trump. The Chinese chain Luckin Coffee Inc., which was listed on Nasdaq, was found to have intentionally fabricated a chunk of its 2019 revenue. The following year, in a rare bipartisan move, Congress moved to force action.
2. Where does it stand?
As required by the law, known as the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act or HFCAA, the SEC in March started publishing its “provisional list” of companies identified as running afoul of the requirements. While the move had long been telegraphed, the first batch of names fueled a sharp decline in U.S. shares of companies based in China and Hong Kong as it dashed hopes for some kind of compromise. In all, the PCAOB has said it’s blocked from reviewing the audits of more than 200 of those businesses. The companies say Chinese national security law prohibits them from turning over audit papers to U.S. regulators. SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in late March that the Chinese authorities faced “a hard set of choices.” Days later, China announced it would modify a 2009 rule that restricted the sharing of financial data by offshore-listed firms, potentially clearing one obstacle.
3. What is China changing?
The China Securities Regulatory Commission said the requirement that on-site inspections should be mainly conducted by Chinese regulatory agencies or rely on their inspection results would be removed. It said it would provide assistance for cooperation with foreign regulators. Negotiations on the logistics for on-site inspections in China were said to be underway in late April. The CSRC said it’s rare in practice that companies need to provide documents containing confidential and sensitive information. However, if required during the auditing process, they must obtain approvals in accordance with related laws and regulations.
4. What’s the broader issue?
Critics say Chinese companies enjoy the trading privileges of a market economy -- including access to U.S. stock exchanges -- while receiving government support and operating in an opaque system. In addition to inspecting audits, the HFCAA requires foreign companies to disclose if they’re controlled by a government. The SEC is also demanding that investors receive more information about the structure and risks associated with shell companies -- known as variable interest entities, or VIEs -- that Chinese companies use to list shares in New York. Since July 2021, the SEC has refused to greenlight new listings. Gensler has said more than 250 companies already trading will face similar requirements.
5. How soon could Chinese companies be delisted?
Nothing is going to happen this year or even in 2023, which explains why markets initially took the possibility in their stride. Under the HFCAA, a company would be delisted only after three consecutive years of non-compliance with audit inspections. It could return by certifying that it had retained a registered public accounting firm approved by the SEC.
6. How many companies will be affected?
There’s not much discretion. If a company from China or Hong Kong trades in the U.S. and files an annual report, it will soon find itself on the SEC’s list simply because those have been identified as non-compliant jurisdictions. In the March interview, Gensler pointed out that the law focuses on non-compliant countries, rather than specific companies.
7. What are investors doing in response?
If a U.S.-listed Chinese company also has shares traded in Hong Kong, shareholders have the option to convert their American depositary shares (ADSs) into Hong Kong stock. Some are doing just that by handing over the U.S. shares to the depositary bank and instructing it to cancel them. The bank then directs the custodian to deliver Hong Kong ordinary shares to a broker account in Hong Kong’s central clearing and settlement system. The process usually takes two business days.
8. Are some Chinese firms really controlled by the government?
Major private firms like Alibaba could probably argue that they are not, although others with substantial state ownership may have a harder time. As of May 2021, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which reports to Congress, counted eight “national-level Chinese state-owned enterprises” listed on major U.S. exchanges.
9. Why have Chinese companies listed in the U.S.?
They are attracted by the liquidity and deep investor base of U.S. capital markets, which offer access to a much bigger and less volatile pool of capital, in a potentially speedier time frame. China’s own markets, while giant, remain relatively underdeveloped. Fundraising for even quality companies can take months in a financial system that is constrained by state-owned lenders. Dozens of firms pulled planned IPOs last year after Chinese regulators tightened listing requirements to protect the retail investors who dominate stock trading, as opposed to the institutional investors and mutual-fund base active in the U.S. And until recently, the Hong Kong exchange had a ban on dual-class shares, which are often used by tech entrepreneurs to keep control of their startups after going public in the U.S. It was relaxed in 2018, prompting big listings from Alibaba, Meituan and Xiaomi.
(updates section 3 with negotiations for on-site inspections)
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