Despite its throwback name, Adobe Products is a cutting-edge technology company whose products—notably, PDF files—are used by millions of Americans every day. As it turns out, Adobe’s tax-avoidance technology is pretty 21st century too.
The company’s newest annual financial report, released earlier this week, discloses that Adobe is currently holding more than $3 billion of its profits abroad in the form of “permanently reinvested” foreign earnings, and it has paid very little tax on these profits to any country—a clear indication that much of these profits are likely in foreign tax havens.
Accounting standards require publicly held companies to disclose the U.S. tax they would pay upon repatriation of “permanently reinvested” profits. But these standards also provide a loophole allowing companies to claim they can’t calculate this tax because it is “not practicable.” In other words, companies must report the tax they would owe on this offshore income, but if they claim it's too difficult then they don't have to worry about doing so.
As we have previously documented, the vast majority of Fortune 500 corporations disclosing offshore cash use this egregious loophole to avoid reporting their likely tax rates upon repatriation, even though these companies almost certainly have the capacity to estimate these liabilities.
Refreshingly, Adobe is one of only a few dozen companies that actually admits how much tax it would owe if it repatriated its foreign cash. The latest report says it would owe $900 million, which equates to roughly a 27 percent tax rate. Since the tax it would pay on repatriation is equal to the 35 percent U.S. tax rate minus any foreign taxes paid, the clear implication is that Adobe’s $3 billion offshore stash is largely being held, for tax purposes anyway, in a tax haven country with a tax rate in the single-digits.
While a 2013 investigation by the Financial Times uncovered evidence that the company was using subsidiaries in Ireland (which has a 12.5 percent corporate tax rate) to reduce its effective tax rate, this doesn’t explain how the company has managed to pay an even lower rate on its offshore profits to date. Mysteriously, Adobe’s annual report doesn’t disclose the existence of any foreign subsidiaries in countries with tax rates lower than Ireland—even though it is supposed to publish a list of all its “significant” subsidiaries.
When the hubbub over President Barack Obama’s recently announced plan for reforming capital gains taxes dies down, tax reform talk in Congress this year likely will refocus on the hot topic of corporations that move their profits (or corporate address) offshore for tax purposes. The new Adobe data illustrate perfectly the difficulty Congress faces. Members are under immense pressure from corporate-backed lobbyists and their allies to lower the 35 percent corporate tax rate. But all manner of loopholes and offshore profit shifting enable corporations to substantially lower and in many cases erase their U.S. tax liability. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for these companies to disclose where they're stashing their offshore profits and whether they’re paying any taxes.