U.S. audit watchdog, SEC plan Beijing visit

Tue Jul 5, 2011 5:25pm EDT

* PCAOB, SEC officials planning Beijing trip

* Ultimate goal is PCAOB inspection authority in China

* 'Meaningful' inspection arrangement seen by year-end

By Clare Baldwin and Nanette Byrnes

NEW YORK, July 5 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators will talk to authorities in Beijing about the oversight of China-based auditors amid growing concern about a highly publicized string of alleged accounting scandals.

U.S. audit watchdog PCAOB and the SEC both confirmed meetings would take place. Neither said when. Bloomberg News reported from Beijing they would take place on July 11 and 12.

Concern about Chinese companies has risen in the United States and Canada where stocks have been de-listed, trading has stopped, share prices have collapsed, auditors have resigned and regulatory probes have been launched.

The U.S. delegation is expected to include representatives from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), including representation from the Office of the Chief Accountant, PCAOB board member Lewis Ferguson said late last month.

Talks will focus on the audit oversight process with the expectation a system will be established for inspecting Chinese audit firms handling U.S. listings by the end of the year, a PCAOB spokeswoman confirmed by email at the same time.

Colleen Brennan, the PCAOB's top spokesman, said on Tuesday by email that progress had been made following a meeting of the PCAOB and the China Securities Regulatory Commission during the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

"Both sides have agreed to accelerate efforts, including undertaking a process for negotiations and engaging in technical assistance activities, to reach a bilateral agreement governing cross-border audit oversight," she said. [ID:nL4E7GJ1M8]

NOT ONLY CHINA

The PCAOB is considering requiring U.S. auditors who rely on the work of affiliated firms to disclose the names of those firms and whether they are open for inspection by the PCAOB, Ferguson said at a Practising Law Institute event in New York last month.

Companies looking to list on U.S. exchanges are required to have their books audited by a firm registered with the PCAOB and inspected by it on a regular basis.

But some companies have been using China-based auditors and China does not currently allow the PCAOB to inspect the work of those firms. According to the PCAOB, 28 Hong Kong and China-based firms which are not inspected by the board audited financial statements filed with the SEC by 230 U.S. public companies in 2009 and 2010.

China is not the only country that forbids PCAOB inspections, but its ban has attracted extra scrutiny amid widespread allegations of accounting fraud, especially from a vociferous group of short sellers who have been publishing reports to back up their allegations of shenanigans.

The accusations began with smaller companies that went public in the United States by merging with already-listed U.S. shell companies, but have grown to include companies such as Longtop Financial Technologies Ltd LFT.N that became public through an IPO, and larger companies like Sino Forest Corp TRE.TO in Canada.

There is no existing agreement with Chinese regulators but Ferguson said he was hopeful they would reach one. The ultimate goal of the discussions was inspection access in China, he said, adding that this trip would be a "confidence-building exercise."

In other countries, the PCAOB has pursued joint inspections with local regulators. Recently the board gained the right to inspect auditors based in Britain and Switzerland. (Reporting by Clare Baldwin, Dena Aubin and Nanette Byrnes; Editing by Howard Goller and Matthew Lewis)