House Will Vote on Bill Restricting Chinese Firms Listed in U.S.

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The House is set to vote on bipartisan legislation that would impose restrictions on Chinese companies listed on U.S. exchanges, including requiring certification that they’re not under control of a foreign government.

The bill’s sponsors say the aim is to ensure foreign companies traded in America are subject to the same independent audit requirements that apply to U.S. firms. In doing so, the measure threatens to boot Chinese companies, including behemoths like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc., out of American stock markets.

The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (S. 945) will be considered Wednesday under a streamlined process that limits debate on the House floor, allows no amendments, and requires approval by two-thirds of members present and voting to pass.

The Republican-led Senate passed the measure in May; scheduling a House vote now, under an accelerated process typically used for non-controversial matters, signals conditional bipartisan support.

“The current policy that allows Chinese firms to flout the rules that American companies follow is toxic,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said in a statement to Bloomberg News on Saturday. Kennedy introduced the bill with Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland.

At issue is China’s refusal to let inspectors from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board review audits of Chinese companies that trade on U.S. exchanges. It’s gained urgency due to rising tensions between the two countries on several fronts, from military to human rights, and also follows this year’s high-profile accounting scandal at Luckin Coffee Inc.

“It puts American families and workers at risk by jeopardizing their college and retirement savings,” Kennedy said. “My colleagues on both sides of the aisle recognize that fact and that we have a solution at hand.”

The legislation holds that if a company can’t show it’s not under the control of a foreign government, or the PCAOB isn’t able to audit the firm for three consecutive years, the company’s securities would be banned from U.S. exchanges.

The planned House vote comes as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has been working on potential parallel regulatory action that could lead to a delisting of Chinese and other certain foreign companies for not complying with U.S. auditing rules, Bloomberg News reported this month.

The battles over audit inspections date back almost 20 years, to the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act which overhauled regulation of public company audits after the collapses of Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. The law set up the PCAOB and required it to conduct regular reviews of companies’ books. Though it applies to businesses across the world if they tap the U.S. markets -- and more than 50 foreign jurisdictions permit the reviews -- China has refused to comply.

U.S. and Chinese officials have repeatedly failed to come up with a compromise. In the meantime, Chinese companies have continued to go public on U.S. stock exchanges. They’ve raised about $12 billion in IPOs this year.

Chinese stock listings have also attracted President Donald Trump’s attention. This month, he signed an order barring U.S. investments in Chinese firms owned or controlled by the military, a move that could affect 31 companies and potentially more before Trump exits the White House.

Fang Xinghai, vice chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, sounded a positive note on resolving the issue at a panel discussion this month, saying it’s important to ensure that Chinese companies have access to international capital markets.

“During the Biden administration we should be able to resolve that problem because it’s not an intractable problem,” Fang said at the New Economy Forum.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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