Hong Kong accountants’ body asks stock exchange to delay deadline for filing annual results amid virus-led travel restrictions

Enoch Yiu

The Hong Kong Business Accountants Association, an industry body, on Monday urged the city’s stock exchange to consider delaying the deadline by which listed companies must report their annual results, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Companies must file their results by March 31, but the association wants the deadline to be pushed to the end of April.

“We want the regulators to delay the deadline for a month to April 30 for all the over 2,400 listed companies reporting their annual results. This is because the outbreak is showing no signs of retreat, and it is likely more than 1,000 listed companies might miss the deadline. If they all need the stock exchange’s approval, it will be a big burden for the exchange,” Bernard Wu Tak-lung, the association’s president, said. “We cannot ask our auditing staff to go to the outbreak areas, to put their health at risks.”

The South China Morning Post reported on January 30 that Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), which operates the city’s stock exchange, had held an emergency meeting with the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, on either allowing companies to delay the filing of their 2019 annual results, or to issue unaudited results instead. HKEX, together with the Securities and Futures Commission, Hong Kong’s securities watchdog, decided against a blanket delay. On February 4, they issued a statement saying they would allow listed companies to issue unaudited results and to continue trading – but on a case-by-case basis.

“The decision by HKEX and the SFC has not yet fully addressed the concerns of the accounting industry,” Wu said.

The association’s vice-president, Ernst Ip Koon-wing, said many companies might not be able to issue unaudited results, as many mainland Chinese firms’ staff cannot return to work after the Lunar New Year holiday because of the outbreak. “If this happens, many companies might be suspended from trading because they missed their reporting deadlines,” Ip said. “We are not talking about changing the reporting rule forever, but just want a one-time exemption because of the epidemic.”

HKEX said on Monday it recognised the challenges some issuers and their auditors were facing. It had, along with the SFC, allowed the publication of accounts that had not yet been audited as an extraordinary measure, to ensure stakeholders had access to the most up-to-date information on listed companies. “We are encouraging issuers to talk with the exchange as soon as possible, so that the most appropriate support and guidance can be given,” a spokesman said.

“We will continue to closely monitor market developments, and will continue to engage directly with listed issuers, so that we are informed on the effectiveness of the measures that we have put in place,” he added.

Investors, meanwhile, want the exchange to stick to the March 31 deadline. “We would exhort the issuers and auditors to use their best endeavours to stick to the March deadline,” said Sally Wong, chief executive of Hong Kong Investment Funds Association.

If a blanket exemption were to be provided, it probably will give issuers and auditors some breathing space. But on the other hand, from the investors’ perspective, would that result in a delay in information availability?”

Wong said she was also worried the virus might last for several months, and the delay of one month will not be helpful.

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,000 people and infected more than 40,000, has led to travel restrictions, affecting the ability of, among others, auditors to visit mainland China and audit the results of more than 1,200 mainland companies listed in Hong Kong.

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