The White House put over a dozen Chinese companies on an investment blacklist. Congress passed legislation to enforce long-neglected requirements for audit inspections or delist the offending companies from U.S. exchanges. China’s government announced antitrust investigations that shook the value of internet goliaths, Alibaba and Tencent.
On December 2nd, 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would bar Chinese companies from trading in the U.S. if their auditors are not subject to inspections by the PCAOB within three years. The "Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act" was passed by the Senate in May and will now be sent to President Trump to be signed into law.
For those unfamiliar with the term, SPACs, also known as ‘blank check companies’, seek to pool money from investors with a plan to acquire an existing asset. For example, it could be a company whose existing investors are looking for an exit and would be happy to sell their interest. For companies, it gives them a convenient method of getting onto an exchange – SPACs are already listed on stock markets through an initial public offering (IPO) – and it gives the people backing the SPAC a chance to quickly get exposure to an emerging trend like the stock market bull run experienced by technology companies this year.
While special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have existed since the early 1990s, these investment vehicles have gained popularity in recent years. SPAC IPOs have raised over $49 billion thus far in 2020, outstripping all prior records, and many more have filed to go public by the end of the year. While in the past, most SPACs were taken public by boutique investment bankers and raised tens of millions of dollars, today, nearly every "bulge bracket" firm has led a SPACs deal, with proceeds up to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.
Despite a directive from a White House working group that could lead the SEC to close the door to companies whose auditors are not PCAOB-inspected, Chinese companies continued to raise significant amounts of capital on U.S. exchanges in the third quarter of 2020.
Amid this year’s white-hot IPO market, the SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has incinerated previous records for this once-obscure financing vehicle. Thus far, in 2020, 116 SPACs have been funded through initial public offerings, raising $40 billion. SPACs make up the single largest “industry” group in 2020’s crop of IPOs, accounting for 45% of the number of new issues and 44% of total capital raised. More "blank check" companies debuted on NASDAQ and NYSE in August and September than "real" operating companies. The financing vehicle has attracted a host of luminaries, from investment icons like Bill Ackman of Pershing Square and Peter Thiel, baseball savant Billy Beane of “Moneyball,” and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
On August 7th, the President's Working Group on Financial Markets weighed in on the dangers that investing in Chinese companies posed to U.S. investors. This report is the latest salvo following the passage of Senate's Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act in May and an SEC roundtable on the risks of investing in emerging markets in July.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created novel challenges for the audit profession that could have lingering impacts on the quality and reliability of independent accounting firm’s work if not carefully addressed. The increased reliance on remote auditing needs to be carefully managed particularly for auditors with clients in areas like China and Europe, where travel restrictions limit site visits compared to domestic locations that can be visited with COVID protocols in place. Management, audit committees, and investors all need to be aware of the limitations that auditors are operating under and the steps that can be taken to ensure that audit quality remains robust during this period.
Reading the headlines, one would think that this would be the worst of all possible moments for a Chinese company to contemplate a U.S. IPO. Tensions over issues ranging from trade to managing the COVID-19 pandemic are at a boiling point. The Senate recently passed legislation requiring the SEC to delist Chinese companies whose auditors do not comply with U.S. regulators' inspections. Some commentators have predicted a looming “divorce” between the world’s two largest economies.
For years I have heard a familiar refrain from American investors: They would love to be able to participate in China’s economic growth, if only they could trust the accuracy of the accounting. Unfortunately, episodic blowups of listed Chinese companies have sown doubts about the reliability of their financial reporting and governance practices. In cases when serious problems emerged, there was limited recourse available to hold management accountable or secure compensation.