October 22, 2020

High & Low Finance: The Audacity of Chinese Frauds

The fraud at Longtop Financial Technologies, a Chinese financial software company, was exposed this week in an amazing letter from its auditors, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. It appears to be a tale of corrupt bankers and their threats to auditors who had learned of the lies.

Deloitte, which had given clean audit opinions to Longtop for six consecutive years, apparently was well on its way to providing a seventh, for the fiscal year that ended March 31. But for some reason — Deloitte did not say why —the auditor went back to Longtop’s banks last week to again seek confirmation of cash balances.

It appears Deloitte sought confirmations from bank headquarters, rather than the local branches that had previously verified that Longtop’s cash really was on deposit. And that set off panic at the software firm.

“Within hours” of beginning the new round of confirmations on May 17, the confirmation process was stopped, Deloitte stated in its letter of resignation, the result of “intervention by the company’s officials including the chief operating officer, the confirmation process was stopped.”

The company told banks that Deloitte was not really the auditor. It seized documents, Deloitte wrote, and made “threats to stop our staff leaving the company premises unless they allowed the company to retain our audit files.”

Despite the company’s efforts, Deloitte learned Longtop did not have the cash it claimed and that there were “significant bank borrowings” not reflected in the company’s books.

A few days later, Deloitte said, Longtop’s chairman, Jia Xiao Gong, told a Deloitte partner that there was “fake cash recorded on the books” because there had been “fake revenue in the past.”

The stock has not traded since that confrontation. The final trade on the New York Stock Exchange was for $18.93, a price that valued the company at $1.1 billion. At its peak in November, it had a market capitalization of $2.4 billion.

It now seems likely that the stock is worthless. It is a real company, but its revenue and profits probably were a small fraction of the amounts reported. The existence of the “significant” debt means that whatever assets are left are likely to be owned by the banks, not the investors.

Deloitte may have decided to check the numbers again because it knew a growing group of bears on the stock had been challenging the Longtop story as too good to be true, questioning both its financial statements and the claims it made for its software. A month earlier, Deloitte resigned as the auditor of another Chinese company, China MediaExpress, in part because of questions about bank confirmations.

It is never good for an auditor to have certified a fraud, but Deloitte seems to have acted properly. It got bank confirmations, and it got them directly from the banks rather than relying on the company to provide them, as PricewaterhouseCoopers had done when it failed to notice a huge fraud at Satyam, an Indian technology company.

But the confirmations were lies.

“This means the Chinese banks were in on the fraud, at least at branch level,” says John Hempton, the chief investment officer of Bronte Capital, an Australian hedge fund. He was one of the bears who questioned Longtop’s claims and now stands to profit from the stock’s collapse.

“This is no longer a story about Longtop, and it is not a story about Deloitte,” he added. “Given the centrality of Chinese banks to the global economy, it’s a story much bigger than Deloitte or Longtop.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission has started an investigation, and no doubt more details will emerge, including the names of the banks involved. Just what, if anything, Chinese officials choose to do could provide an indication about whether defrauding foreign investors is deemed to be a serious crime in China.

Fraud in Chinese stocks is not new. But it had seemed that the worst problems were in small companies without Wall Street pedigrees. Many of the fraudulent companies went public in the United States by the reverse-merger shell route, a course long favored by shady stock promoters. That route allowed companies to start trading without going though a formal underwriting process or having its prospectus reviewed by the S.E.C. And many used tiny audit firms based in the United States that seemingly did little if any work.

What is stunning about Longtop and some other recent disasters is the list of smart people who were fooled.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=dfe07c63ff913c21ea7c623f4d944d84

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