NEW YORK The Chinese arms of all of the Big Four audit firms have been asked by U.S. regulators to turn over documents related to audits of China-based companies that are listed in the United States, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The formal requests made by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission raise the stakes in a standoff between U.S. authorities, the companies and Chinese officials over access to the auditors' work papers.
Last year the SEC filed an enforcement action against Deloitte's Shanghai arm seeking documents, but the agency has not yet taken public enforcement action against the Chinese units of the other Big Four firms - Ernst & Young, PwC and KPMG - over Chinese audit papers.
Now that the other firms have received formal requests for documents, it could be a matter of time before they are in the same position as Deloitte, one legal expert said.
"If they don't produce the documents upon request, then it's possible that the SEC could take adverse action the way they already have done in the case of Deloitte Shanghai," said William Currier, a partner with law firm White & Case in Washington.
On May 9, the SEC charged Deloitte's Shanghai arm with violating U.S. securities laws by refusing to produce documents from an audit of an unnamed China-based company. The SEC said sanctions could include censure or revoking the firm's ability to practice before the commission.
PwC confirmed on Tuesday that it has received requests for documents. It did not say when the SEC asked for documents but said "at various times" it has received formal and informal SEC requests for audit papers from China.
"Like other firms who have received similar requests, in dealing with them we are confronted by conflicting laws between the United States and China," PwC said in a statement.
KPMG declined to comment on whether it has received requests for documents from the SEC. Ernst & Young did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Big Four auditors have been pressing U.S. officials to reach some diplomatic solution to the dispute over work papers.
Auditors can face deregistration proceedings by the SEC if they deny a formal request for documents.
Deloitte's Shanghai arm has been the target of previous SEC action over work papers. Last September, the agency sought a court order to force the auditor to produce records from its audit of China-based Longtop Financial Technologies. Deloitte has said Chinese law prohibits it from turning over the documents.
That case is pending in a U.S. District Court. Deloitte has asked the court to quash the SEC action, saying the SEC's real dispute is with Chinese regulators and should be resolved through diplomatic negotiations.
The SEC's press for work papers is part of a wide-ranging effort by U.S. regulators to crack down on accounting problems at Chinese companies listing shares in the United States.
U.S. investors have lost billions of dollars in China-based companies after questions were raised about the companies' accounting, prompting a broad probe by the SEC.
The U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which oversees auditors, has been pressing to gain access in China to inspect audit firms there. The PCAOB and SEC have been meeting with their counterparts in China to try to reach a deal on inspections and work papers.
"Without resolution, the only meaningful option... is for the PCAOB to deregister the (audit) firms and for the SEC to ban them from practice before the SEC," Paul Gillis, an accounting professor at Peking University, said in a recent blog post.
If that happens, U.S.-listed Chinese companies would be without auditors and face delisting from U.S. exchanges, he said.
Last month the PCAOB said it has made some progress in talks with China, reaching an agreement to observe audit inspections there. That would be a first step toward a deal allowing PCAOB inspectors in China to do joint inspections, PCAOB Chairman James Doty said.
(Reporting by Dena Aubin; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tim Dobbyn)