Last week the Coca-Cola corporation revealed that it may have to pay $3.3 billion in back taxes to the U.S. government. The disclosure, buried in a corporate filing, says that the reason for this tax hit is the company’s allegedly inappropriate use of transfer pricing to shift its intangible property out of the United States and into low-rate tax havens. Put another way, the company appears to be pretending, for tax purposes, that some of the income it earns each year in the United States was actually generated in another country.
The disclosure comes at a valuable time, because Congress is now focusing its attention once again on the problem of how to deal with the mountains of offshore cash held by Fortune 500 corporations – and Coca-Cola is a very big player in this debate. At the end of 2014, Coke disclosed having a whopping $33.3 billion in permanently reinvested foreign earnings – 16th highest among the Fortune 500. These are earnings that the company has stated its intention to keep offshore indefinitely, and for this reason it does not have to pay even a dime of U.S. tax on this $33.3 billion.
Even without the help of an official notice from the Internal Revenue Service, one could be forgiven for suspecting that all was not right with Coca-Cola’s statements about the location of its profits. In 2014, the company generated 43 percent of its worldwide revenue in the United States, but somehow that only translated into 17 percent of its income being in the U.S. And a 2014 CTJ report found that Coca-Cola had at least 13 subsidiaries in known foreign tax havens, including three in the Cayman Islands. These facts alone are not enough to show conclusively that Coke is aggressively shifting its U.S. profits into tax havens, but certainly the most likely reason for having three Cayman Islands subsidiaries is to shift profits there–and that is essentially what the IRS has accused them of doing.
Coke’s $33 billion in offshore cash is a decent chunk of the $2.1 trillion in permanently reinvested earnings that have captivated the minds of Congressional lawmakers. Lawmakers on one side claim these are legitimate foreign earnings that big corporations are yearning to bring back to the U.S., and that with a lower corporate tax rate they would immediately do so. Skeptics argue that these companies are simply moving their U.S. profits offshore on paper in hopes of reaping tax rewards. The latest disclosure from Coca-Cola strengthens the argument that this mountain of allegedly “foreign” offshore profits are not, in fact, “the real thing” at all.