The Hong Kong Institute of CPAs (HKICPAs) has finally gotten around to pun-ishing Ernst & Young and its former senior partner Anthony Wu for a serious independence violation. The disciplinary process was finally concluded nearly 20 years after the violations took place. Anthony Wu was a high profile CPA in Hong Kong and HKICPAs was obviously reluctant to pursue the case.
The case against Wu was a slam dunk. He signed checks for an EY audit client. His defense was laughable – he only did it when other signatories were unavail-able and had approved the payments. He also served as an advisor to the com-pany, and was involved in loans to the company. Wu’s only credible defense was that, by taking 20 years to prosecute him, his defense was undermined. But he and EY had been told to preserve documents and had not done so.
EY was found guilty of not supervising Wu. EY’s management committee had been informed of what Wu was doing and did not stop him. Neither did the audit partner, Catherine Yen, who was found guilty of violating independence rules as well for signing despite Wu’s activities impairing EY’s independence.
Drew Bernstein, Co-managing partner of Marcum Bernstein & Pinchuk LLP has written a response to my recent post about NQ Mobile’s auditor change. I have a great deal of respect for Drew. As I said in my post I think he is among the best of the non-Big Four firms working the Chinese market. He might actually be better than many of the Big Four audit teams working on U.S. listed clients. But the Big Four brand is expected by many market participants, and this will always prove a challenge for specialty firms like Drew’s. Nonetheless, MarcumBP was probably the best alternative for NQ Mobile in this situation.
I would like to thank Paul for his regular stream of sharp, well-informed observ-ations about auditing Chinese companies listed overseas, as well the positive comments about my firm, MarcumBP, in this piece. At the same time, I would like to clarify some issues that might cause confusion for the casual reader of this commentary.
As Paul knows firsthand, auditing U.S.-listed Chinese companies is a complex business. To be effective, an auditor must have in-depth knowledge of China’s business practices and regulatory framework, and be highly trained in ever evol-ving SEC accounting rules. While China has grown into an economic superpower, its legal and business information practices are still that of a developing country. An American auditor without experience in China might have great dif-ficulty adequately testing the financial statements. High-level expertise in U.S. GAAP and SEC accounting issues are still in short supply in China.
NQ Mobile (NYSE:NQ) fired auditor PwC Zhong Tian and replaced them with Marcum Bernstein Pinchuk LLP (MBP). MBP is a joint venture between 14th ranked U.S. CPA firm Marcum and unranked Bernstein Pinchuk. The joint venture audits 18 SEC registrants, ranking it 4th by number of SEC registered clients in China (but much smaller if ranked by revenue). I have considered MBP to be among the best of the small firms working the China market. Unlike some of their peers they understand China and actually do audits. The 2013 PCOAB inspection of MBP found no deficiencies in their audit work.
NQ Mobile was the subject of a report by Muddy Waters last October alleging widespread fraud. Some of Muddy Waters allegations were easily dispelled. A special investigation by Deloitte and Shearman & Sterling failed to uncover evidence of fraud, but did report missing data.
The company missed the deadline (April 30) for producing its annual report on Form 20F apparently because PwC would not sign the required audit report. The company announced that its audit committee chairman had resigned (ostensibly for personal reasons). The stock was badly beaten up.
Bloomberg today reported that the Alibaba offering is sailing through regulatory review at the SEC. That is not surprising, since it appears Alibaba assembled an army of advisors to make that happen.
Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania wrote to SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White to ask her to focus on the VIE structure and the risks it poses for American investors. Casey asked the SEC to give him an analysis of how the SEC reviews VIEs. I hope he releases that analysis.
I think the SEC is doing its job with respect to VIEs. The quality of disclosures has improved significantly over the past few years. Investors who read those disclosures are informed, and they obviously think that the risks are worth taking.