BEIJING (AP) — An American judge has ruled the China arms of global accounting firms should be barred from providing audits for U.S.-traded companies in a dispute that might force major corporate names such as oil giant PetroChina and search engine Baidu to withdraw from American stock exchanges.
The dispute highlights the clash between Washington's heightened anti-fraud efforts and Beijing's official secrecy despite its desire to profit from broader links with the global economy.
In a ruling Wednesday, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission said Chinese firms affiliated with the "Big Four" accounting firms — PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, KPMG and Ernst & Young — acted improperly when they withheld documents from fraud investigators. The firms said Chinese law barred them from releasing the documents.
The judge, Cameron Elliot, recommended the firms be suspended for six months from providing audits that U.S.-traded companies must submit in order to remain on American exchanges. Elliott recommended a censure for the Chinese arm of a smaller firm, BDO, which he said has withdrawn from such auditing.
The Big Four firms said in a joint statement they would appeal. If the penalty is upheld, it might leave dozens of Chinese companies with no way to provide audits required in order to have their shares traded on U.S. exchanges.
Beijing has resisted expanding access to corporate records as a violation of its sovereignty.
The wholesale departure of Chinese companies from American stock markets would be a setback to closer financial ties between the world's two biggest economies.
U.S.-traded Chinese companies include industry leaders such as PetroChina Ltd., Baidu Inc. and Internet portals Sina Corp. and Sohu Inc. They could shift their shares to Hong Kong or another market where Americans still could buy them. But their withdrawal from U.S. markets would leave small investors fewer options to profit from China's rapid growth.
Elliott, the SEC judge, ruled the Chinese firms "did not act in good faith" when they provided audits to U.S.-traded companies but knew they would likely be barred from cooperating with investigators.