Chinese companies seeking financing in the U.S. are coming up against increased scrutiny after accounting scandals emerged from two high-profile firms, casting doubts over plans for new listings and other financing plans.
TAL Education, a New York-listed education firm run by Chinese billionaire Zhang Bangxin, revealed on Tuesday that an employee is suspected of conspiring with outside vendors to inflate sales. The news sent shares of TAL down almost 9% as of Thursday, wiping out $878 million from Zhang’s fortune.
TAL said the employee in question was taken into police custody, and the affected business unit, called Light Class, accounted for 3% to 4% of its annual revenue.
The announcement came less than a week after Luckin Coffee, a Xiamen-based chain that once positioned itself as a challenger to Starbucks, admitted that more than $300 million of last year’s sales had been fabricated. Analysts say the scandals will undermine investors’ confidence in Chinese firms, adding to the challenges of raising capital in an already difficult market.
“There is no denying that investors are now doubting Chinese companies, especially those touting high growth and new business models,” says Zhu Ning, deputy dean at Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Data provider Dealogic says there are currently 15 Chinese companies planning to each raise between $10 million to $125 million in the U.S.
Zhu says it’s likely that regulatory scrutiny will step up, and the new listings might not reach their desired valuations or attract much interest from institutional investors. He says the risk extends to all forms of financing including issuing debt, meaning companies will need to offer higher returns to appeal to potential lenders.
Luckin’s market cap, which had been as high as $10 billion in early March, had fallen to $1.1 billion before the company’s shares were suspended from trading on April 6. The Nasdaq is seeking additional information from Luckin.
Brock Silvers, managing director of Hong Kong-based Adamas Asset Management, points to wider accounting problems in China, where the COVID-19 pandemic has taken such a heavy toll on so much of the economy.
“It is extremely unlikely that Luckin and TAL are the only two fish in the sea,” he wrote in an emailed note. “The underlying problem is that in recent years China investment has outstripped China profitability. That creates massive pressure, both corporate and personal, to produce unachievable results.”
Another Chinese company was defending itself against similar allegations of false accounting on Wednesday. Shares of Nasdaq-listed video streaming site iQiyi initially dropped 4.6% but recovered loss the following day after it was accused by Wolfpack Research of inflating 2019 results and user numbers. iQiyi denied the allegations, saying the report contains “numerous errors, unsubstantiated statements and misleading conclusions and interpretations.”
Still, lawmakers in the U.S. are likely to seize on recent accounting scandals, and there will be renewed pressure for tighter oversight of China-based auditing firms, says Drew Bernstein, co-chairman of New York-based accounting firm MarcumBP. Citing national security reasons, Beijing has long resisted inspections of the China-based offices of the Big Four accounting firms by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), which oversees accounting professionals who provide audit reports of U.S.-traded public companies.
To push for compliance, lawmakers from both parties introduced last June a bill to force U.S.-listed Chinese companies to submit audit reports to U.S. regulators, or face delisting. In response to the Luckin scandal, China’s securities regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission, says it condemns this behavior and would crack down on securities fraud in line with international laws.
“While delisting of Chinese stocks remains as a “nuclear option,” I see that as a low probability,” Bernstein says. “If we see cross-border cooperation emerge among regulators, that would be a very positive outcome from this.”
I am a Beijing-based writer covering China’s technology sector. I contribute to Forbes, and previously I freelanced for SCMP and Nikkei. Prior to Beijing, I spent six months as an intern at TIME magazine’s Hong Kong office. I am a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @yueyueyuewang
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