While the presidential candidates debate whether the tax code rewards companies that move operations overseas, a new CTJ report shows that ten companies, including Apple and Microsoft, indicate in their own financial statements that most of their foreign earnings have never been taxed – anywhere. The statements the companies file with the SEC reveal that if they brought their foreign profits back to the U.S., they would pay the full 35 percent U.S. tax rate, which is how we can surmise that no foreign taxes were paid that would offset any of the 35 percent U.S. tax rate.
The most likely explanation of this is that these profits, instead of being earned by real, economically productive operations in developed countries, are actually U.S. profits that have been shifted overseas to offshore tax havens such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. This same type of offshore profit shifting was the focus of a recent Senate hearing where Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard found themselves in the hot seat.
In the tax footnote to their financial statements, companies disclose the amount of their foreign subsidiaries’ earnings which are “indefinitely reinvested,” that is, parked offshore. Calling it "indefinitely reinvested" allows them to embellish their bottom lines, on paper anyway, because they don't have to account for the cost of U.S. taxes they'd pay on that offshore income. But, they must disclose the total amount of their unrepatriated profits, and also estimate the U.S. tax that would be due if those earnings were repatriated.
A new CTJ analysis of the Fortune 500 found that, although 285 companies reported unrepatriated foreign earnings, only 47 companies disclosed in their financial statements an estimate of the U.S. income tax liability they would face upon repatriation, although that disclosure is required by accounting standards. The remaining companies hid behind a common dodge that estimating the U.S. tax would be “not practicable.” Legions of lawyers and accountants help these companies avoid taxes but can’t calculate the costs to the U.S. treasury?
Which Fortune 500 Companies are Shifting Profits to Offshore Tax Havens? ranks the 47 companies that do disclose this figure by the tax rate they’d pay if they repatriated their foreign earnings. Seven of the top ten are members, either directly or through a trade association, of the WIN America campaign that is lobbying for a repatriation tax holiday (aka corporate tax amnesty) that would let them bring the foreign earnings home at a super-low rate.
It’s not as though the rest of the Fortune 500 is innocent. CTJ’s report notably says nothing about the 238 Fortune 500 companies that have admitted having offshore hoards but refuse to calculate how much tax they’d pay. These companies include suspected tax dodgers like Google and HP, each of which has subsidiaries in known tax haven countries. In all likelihood, many of these other companies have been as successful in avoiding tax as the ten companies ranked highest in CTJ’s report.
The new CTJ report is another reminder of what U.S.-based multinationals will do to avoid paying tax and why changing the U.S. international tax system to a territorial system is such a bad idea. Moving to a territorial tax system, which is supported by Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan, would give companies a permanent tax holiday and encourage even more aggressive offshore profit shifting. President Obama has proposed corporate tax reform that would include a “minimum tax” on foreign earnings, although the rate has not been specified. And Congress, it seems, will be taking up overhaul of the corporate tax code next year, so watch this space for the facts about corporate America’s campaign to make dodging taxes even easier.