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Sat, Nov 29, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Accounting practices in China befuddle investors


China's largest listed bank forgets to calculate net profit. The smaller of the nation's two mobile carriers leaves out last year's earnings.

Some firms don't report on schedule, forcing small investors to scour the Internet and newspapers in case figures emerge early. Such was China's corporate results season, ended October.

Merchants Bank -- which issued an apology -- and China Unicom are just the better-known culprits within a medieval system of disclosure that reflects wider problems for a Shanghai bourse that rivals Hong Kong as Asia's second largest.

Throw in headline-hogging scandals, rubber-stamp directors and murky deals with state-controlled parents, and it's not hard to see why a Byzantine corporate sector befuddles foreign investors.

Despite making great strides over the past two years, regulators and investors at an industry forum held last week in China's commercial stronghold said plenty remained to be done.

"You can't name them all, there are so many problems," said James Liu, executive vice president of Shanghai's stock exchange. "Those are not uncommon for any emerging market. If it is not the cleanest one, then [China] is not the worst one."

"We've just had this market 14 or 15 years. What do you expect?" the animated executive said in an interview.

China Inc nonetheless inspires feverish attention from investors eager to profit from economic growth expected to hit 8.5 percent this year.

Chinese markets were opened to foreigners this year via a Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor scheme.

"It's unprecedented that so many are so fervently trying to understand our capital markets," Liu Hongru, ex-chief of the watchdog China Securities Regulatory Commission, told the forum.

"Institutional and fund investors are putting the squeeze on firms," said Liu, who now heads a research institute.

Disclosure in Hong Kong is better, but still suffers because many companies are family-controlled and there is a lack of incentive to tell investors more. Some reveal results to analysts before telling the public, which would break U.S. rules and trigger a fine. Some announce results at odd times..

China's second-biggest mobile carrier, China Unicom Ltd, recently announced a US$387 million purchase of networks from its state-owned parent after midnight.

Hong Kong-listed firms, including top Chinese oil producer PetroChina and carmaker Denway Motors, have up to four months to post final results, but insiders can trade company stock up to a month before results are released.

"It gives the directors and controllers an informational advantage," said David Webb, board member of bourse operator Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing and a shareholder activist.

"It allows them to trade the shares and make a profit, or avoid a loss by selling ahead of the time when investors can find out."

In China, threadbare Web sites carry scant data, research is non-existent and holes in accounts abound. Ernst and Young says 60 percent to 70 percent of China's 140,000 certified accountants, far short of an estimated 4 million the country needs, are 70 or older.

Realizing that shaky governance is topping a long list of investor concerns, China regulators are trying to whip firms into shape: enacting laws, rebuking offenders, even raiding companies.

But anyone who hopes for rapid change "is living in a fantasy world," Liu of the Shanghai stock exchange said.

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