For fans of creative tax dodging, the release of the Nike Corporation’s annual report is always an enlightening occasion. As we noted two years ago, the company quietly acknowledges having stashed billions of dollars in low-tax offshore destinations, and has inadvertently given some signals about how it might be achieving this.
The company’s 2013 annual report disclosed the existence of a dozen subsidiaries based in Bermuda, almost all of which were named after specific brands of Nike shoe. A sensible inference is that these subsidiaries may exist solely to house the company’s intellectual property—patents, trademarks, logos and slogans, for example—associated with each of these brands.
In 2014 the company apparently got wise to the optics and abruptly stopped disclosing the existence of half of these subsidiaries, reducing to six the number of Nike shell companies allegedly doing “business” in Bermuda.
This shouldn’t be surprising. As has already been documented, technology companies like Microsoft and Google have stopped disclosing the existence of almost all of their offshore subsidiaries, and we now know that Wal-Mart never disclosed its offshore subsidiaries to begin with. This behavior is made possible by lax reporting requirements and abysmal enforcement by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is tasked with ensuring that corporations submit transparent financial reports to their shareholders.
In 2015, the company’s latest annual financial report lists only three Bermuda subsidiaries. Does all this mean that the company has renounced its use of the “Nike Force,” “Nike Pegasus” and “Nike Waffle” subsidiaries it formerly disclosed? It’s possible—but don’t count on it. After all, the company added a breathtaking $1.7 billion to its stash of offshore cash in the past year and quietly discloses that it has paid a tax rate that is likely less than 5 percent on these profits. Tax rates that low are pretty hard to find outside the Caribbean.