accounting China

More Trouble for the Big Four Accountants in China: Pushing Prudent Analysis or Propaganda?

This is not a good time for the Big Four accounting firms in China. The SEC has charged them with breaking securities law, while one of the group, Deloitte, is now in serious hot water in the US, facing a shareholder class action in Delaware for aiding a US-listed Chinese company in defrauding US investors. If Deloitte loses, or opts to settle, it could uncork a tidal wave of copycat claims that would do serious, perhaps irreparable damage to the China business of Deloitte, and then also possibly to Ernst & Yong, Price WaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.

The charges against the Big Four all boil down to allegations they were either negligent in fulfilling their statutory duties, or in cahoots with bad guys scheming to defraud US investors. The implication of the SEC charges seems to be the accountants’ willy-nilly pursuit of fees led the Big Four to cut corners, surrender objectivity, and allow their judgment to become corrupted.

Similar doubts can be raised about the quality, credibility and soundness of the judgments the accountants provide in assessing China’s private equity industry. Even as the PE market began to slide into serious trouble last year, the accountants kept talking up the industry. In particular, it’s worth reading the two big and well-publicized reports on China private equity produced by Ernst & Young  and PWC. Both can be downloaded by clicking here. E&Y Report. PWC Report.

Both of these documents were published in late December 2012. All IPO activity for Chinese companies had come to an abrupt halt months earlier, and along with this, China’s PE firms basically went into hibernation, closing off almost all new investment in China. The situation has, if anything, worsened so far in 2013. And yet, to read these reports, my opinion would be that that everything was overall pretty rosy.

Nowhere is it mentioned that a main factor contributing to the collapse of Chinese IPOs is the widespread loss of confidence in the work of accountants. While the PWC report does note the challenge posed by limited exits, it echoes the generally bullish sentiment of the E&Y report. PWC confidently predicts, “We think new deal and exit activity will accelerate strongly from 2Q13 as pricing expectations adjust.” In other words, according to PWC, we’re weeks away now from not just the revival of the comatose China PE industry, it’s going to leap out of bed and begin doing wind-sprints.

Let’s see how things play out.  But, the greater likelihood in my opinion is that 2013 will be the worst year in recent history for China PE. Further out, things look even more dire, as hundreds of PE funds reach the end of their lives still holding tens of billions of dollars in illiquid investments made with LP money.

Why then all the optimism, the boosterism, the cheerleading from the accountants? I have a lot of respect for their professionalism. To me, it seems that their enthusiasm may be more a matter of  wishing, hoping and urging that the PE industry, and the fees that come from it, continue to grow. To crib a line from Warren Buffett’s latest Letter to Shareholders, “wishing makes dreams come true only in Disney movies; it’s poison in business.”

China PE has been good — no, make that, very good — to the Big Four accounting firms. It’s anybody’s guess, but I’d estimate the total fees earned as recently as 2011 by the Big Four for work done for PE firms in China is well above $75mn. This is for audits of existing and potential investments, for other due diligence services and for portfolio valuation.

PE firms are certainly one of the key sources of revenue for the Big Four in China. The Big Four also do work for Chinese corporations, but that market is much more crowded in China, with thousands of local accounting firms also getting their share of corporate audits and tax. The local firms charge about half what the Big Four do. The global PE firms rely almost exclusively on the Big Four to do all their work in China. The PE firms pay top dollar.

The Big Four get paid big money to do audits and projections on many of the deals the bigger PE firms are considering in China.  Very often during due diligence the PE firm opts to abandon a deal. Even when they do, the accounting firms get paid in full. At around $250,000 a pop, the financial DD package on PE deals that never close has become a very lucrative line of business. I’ve also known of cases where the PE firm paid for the audit and projections but then tossed them away after deciding the conclusions were flawed.

Reading the E&Y and PWC reports, it seems to me a primary purpose was marketing, to let the PE industry in China feel good about itself, to reassure distant LPs, and even to encourage China GPs to be a little more bold and active. Nowhere does one read any kind of more sober analysis pointing to the systemic problems in the industry caused by the enormous overhang of unexited deals, expiring fund life, the damage done to IPO markets by false accounting, the billions of dollars in LP money at risk. The reports seem more like propaganda than a prudent assessment.

It’s also puzzling that the accounting companies shared no serious research on the scale of the problem of unexited deals in China. Self-interest, as well as professional credibility,  would seem to dictate it.  Instead, it was my company, which earns fees of precisely zero from PE firms, that made the effort over six months to research and contextualize the problem of unexited deals in China. We had no financial incentive to do this work, but did so because we thought it’s the best way to put the China PE industry on a sounder long-term footing and get PEs to start again making new investments.

It’s not only the accountants that have been gorging on PE firm fees. The big US and UK law firms, management consultants like McKinsey, market research firms and placement agents have also been earning very fat fees and retainers from China’s PE business. My guess is the total amount of LP wealth transferred by China PE firms to professional services firms is above $250mn a year. None of these firms issued serious public warnings to their PE clients about problems bedeviling the industry. McKinsey, which interviews GPs, offered this in the 2012 report I saw on private equity in China, ” As one large GP in China told us, “We’re busier than we have been in the last eight or nine years.”

I can’t help but feel that all these professional services firms have perhaps gotten a little drunk and maybe a little lazy from all the easy money they’ve been earning from China-focused PE funds. No one wants to say anything that might close down the tap on the billions of new LP money coming into China each year, a meaningful slice of which always gets divided among these professional service firms. And so the rather utopian portrayals of China PE keep getting printed and circulated.

It’s similar to the way equity analysts at brokerage houses never seem to have a bad word to say about the companies their firms do business with. Even when an analyst decides the company is a loser, the published research will merely advise to “Hold” or “Accumulate”. In the head-to-head combat between a revenue stream and forthright assessment, the revenue stream always seems to win.

 

 

Not Accountable: Why Brilliant 15th-Century Italian Accounting Rules Are Sometimes of Limited Use in China

 

Luca Pacioli

Luca Pacioli

 

In the history of business, there are no innovations more important, transformative, valuable and widely-used than Luca Pacioli’s. Yet, few know his name. He never made a fortune and likely spent most of his adult life in prayer and cloistered meditation. 

Pacioli was a 15th century Italian mathematician and monk who first codified the system of double-entry bookkeeping. This made modern corporate management possible, by providing a standardized and generally foolproof system for summarizing a business’s financial condition. Pacioli’s system of offsetting credits and debits remains very much the basis of all modern corporate accounting. 

I looked around, but couldn’t discover when double-entry bookkeeping, Pacioli’s brainchild, was first introduced to China. It is certainly pervasive now. The principles of corporate accounting, like mathematics,  don’t change as you move across national borders. In private equity investing, the process of assessing a company’s performance and attractiveness as an investment will be a function, ultimately, of its profitability and net asset value. Pacioli’s methods are the tools to determine both. 

Yet, there are times when I think Pacioli’s accounting principles are no more useful a tool in private equity investment in China than his fellow Italian Marco Polo’s travelogues are to current-day tourists visiting the Great Wall. They are better than nothing. But, you will still need to do a lot of your own strenuous legwork. 

The reason is that accounting principles are not widely applied in the management of many of the better private SME in China. They are entrepreneur-led businesses. Usually the most complete statement of the businesses financial worth is not to be found on a company balance sheet, but in the mind  of the entrepreneur. Some of this is by habit, other by design, to thwart any unwanted outsider, especially the taxman, from knowing exactly what is going on in a company. 

One example from my own work: I made a first visit to an excellent company, with a thriving retail business and brand that’s both well-established and well-known in large parts of China. I was immediately impressed and asked the finance director for the company’s last year’s revenues and profits. “I don’t know,” she replied. Quickly, it became clear she wasn’t being coy or secretive. She genuinely did not know. “Only the boss knows”, she explained, looking over at him. 

He looked momentarily baffled, as if the question had never been posed before, and then did the calculation aloud. He knew precisely how many products he manufactured last year, the average selling price, and unit profit. So with a little multiplication, we were able to get to a number. Turned out, revenues were well north of USD$65mn, and net profits over $7mn. Very solid numbers. We later brought in an accounting firm to do a trial set of financials, and in fact, the true figures were about 15% higher than that first calculation by the boss. Apparently, he hadn’t fully consolidated the results from an outsourced production facility. 

It’s a great company from every perspective – except if you’re trying to evaluate it quickly, using a statement prepared using Luca Pacioli’s principles. Anyone attempting to assess the company using such methods is going to hit a wall, right at the outset. 

The company, like many others of China’s best private firms, does not track its performance with a set of financials, or commission an annual audit. Management stays rigorously attuned to operational details, to cash in the bank, to inputs and outputs, to seizing any available economies to fatten its profit margin. Most often, none of this is ever summarized in a P&L or balance sheet. The boss doesn’t need it. He lives and breathes it every day. 

Any PE firm looking to evaluate the company needs to do the same  – spend time at the company, with the boss, in the factory, and get a feel for how the business is running. If you make it a precondition before any visit to have a set of financials, you’re going to be spending a lot of time anchored to your desk, or visiting only companies that are so hard-up for cash that they’ve spent a good chunk of money getting financials done, to please potential investors. Even in China, an audit done by a local Chinese accounting firm can cost well over USD$50,000. I’d rather have that money spent where it can do more good, like building the business.  

Some good private Chinese companies do have audited financials. They are usually the ones with sizable bank loans. An annual audit is often a covenant of such loans. But, in my experience, most good Chinese companies, with little or no debt and no urgent need to attract investors will not have the sort of financials that some PE firms want to see at the start. 

In China, a set of financials should not be an absolute prerequisite for PE investors. The first step should be to understand the business operationally, and then pay a visit, if the industry and business model both seem attractive. You learn more in two hour site-visit than you would in two days combing through financials.  Besides, any PE firm will commission its own audit, usually by a Big Four accounting firm, before it invests, during the due diligence phase. So, no one is committing money blindly. Eventually, Luca Pacioli’s principles will be put to work. The only issue is whether this is a first step, or one that comes later in the process. 

Accounting rules have enormous value.  Double-entry bookkeeping has never been improved upon, in the 500 years since Pacioli wrote the rules. But, in private equity investment in China, an over-reliance on financial statements, especially as a first-step in getting to know a company, will distort more often than it clarifies. As brilliant as he was, Luca Pacioli could not have anticipated the singular conditions and management style of the current generation of China’s successful private entrepreneurs.