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 is that their 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 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 and then sells them back the research based on it, 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.