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SOE accounting puzzle blurs frugality drive

2014-04-16 07:56 Xinhua Web Editor: qindexing

Many Chinese state-owned enterprises(SOEs) that were under fire last year for exorbitant "reception" fees hid the item in their latest financial results, renewing public concerns over their sincerity to cut extravagance.

China Railway Construction Corporation Ltd. (CRCC), one of the country's largest construction companies, spent 837.5 million yuan (135.1 million U.S. dollars) on receptions in 2012. The company was punished following public outrage over the alleged abuse of state assets.

In its 2013 financial report released in late March, CRCC canceled the item called "receptions" in its accounting statement. Meanwhile, the item named "management fees," which included the sub-item "receptions" in the 2012 report, surged by nearly 2.2 billion yuan last year.

In the CRCC's 2012 report, "management fees" encompassed seven sub-items, including "salary," "R&D," "depreciation of fixed assets," "receptions," "travel," "administration," and "others." In addition to canceling "receptions," the company combined "travel" and "administration," cutting the sub-items to five.

The less detailed accounting statement sparked speculation among Chinese Internet users that part of the expense hike under "management fees" may be the money CRCC spent on receptions last year.

"I don't believe the once huge reception fees suddenly disappeared. They must be hidden somewhere in other accounting items," said a microblogger posting under the screen name "Banxiazhimu."

In the report, CRCC attributed the hike to rising costs in R&D and salaries. The company declined to comment on why it didn't release reception expenditures.

China Communications Construction Company Ltd. and Power Construction Corporation of China failed to release reception expenses as well. The three companies were the top reception spenders in 2012.

According to calculations by stock market portal iFinD, 64 listed companies, the majority of which are state-owned, hid the item in their financial reports published over the past few days.

Jia Mingrui, an accountant with Huatai Securities, said blurring of accounting statements doesn't violate related laws, but opening detailed information to the public is a business norm among listed companies.

"A financial report without enough details is useless to investors and the public," Jia said.

Li Jin, chief researcher with China Enterprise Research Institute, said hiding reception fees is not a wise move.

"SOEs should actively respond to public concerns. The blurring, if deliberate, will weaken their sincerity in following frugality calls and impair people's right to know," said Li.

China launched a comprehensive frugality campaign in late 2012, requiring SOEs, along with government organs, to cut exorbitant spending.

Reception fees include spending on such items as catering, gifts and tickets to tourist spots during normal business activities. But in some cases, off-the-books income or even bribery are classified under the vague category.

After CRCC's soaring reception fees were exposed by media last May, an investigation found its spending on receptions was generally in accordance with regulations.

However, the investigation exposed problems at CRCC, such as non-standardized invoices, a lack of strictness in expense reimbursement, and issues in accounting classification.

"SOEs are different from governments, and it's natural for them to have such spending. But it doesn't mean that they are allowed to waste it," said Wen Zongyu, a senior researcher with the Ministry of Finance.

The CRCC case finally led to 57 people being criticized, eight punished and one transferred to judicial authorities for prosecution. After that, many public companies became cautious about reception fees.

As a result, spending on receptions has generally declined. So far, 1,049 listed companies have reported a total of 6.1 billion yuan in reception fees in 2013, about 2.8 billion less than in 2012.

The reception fees of Minmetals Development Co., Ltd. declined sharply by 33.8 million yuan last year, down 54.2 percent from 2012. At the same time, its net profits rebounded from heavy losses to a 279-million-yuan gain.

Xu Baoli, a senior researcher with the State-owned Asses Supervision and Administration Commission, said some of the SOEs took extravagance for granted, and unchecked reception spending revealed a lack of supervision.

Li echoed Xu, saying that authorities should step up supervision on SOEs and work to regulate the release of information.

"Transparency is the base of public supervision," said Li.

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