The recently released annual report from the Celanese Corporation, a Fortune 500 manufacturer of engineering polymers, is a helpful reminder of why multinational companies should be required to report their earnings to tax authorities in countries where they claim to earn profits. In its 2015 annual report, Celanese discloses that its foreign income over the past three years totaled $1.46 billion, the bulk of which ($900 million) it reported earning in four tax havens: Bermuda, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. This means the company is claiming that more than 60 percent of its foreign income, and an incredible 30 percent of its worldwide income, is earned in these tax-haven countries.
As we’ve argued in the past, country-by-country reporting is a vital tool for tax administrators in the United States and abroad to help them detect corporate tax avoidance schemes. The Internal Revenue Service has released rules implementing OECD recommendations for country reporting, but Rep. Charles Boustany, chair of the House Ways and Means Tax Policy Subcommittee, is doing whatever he can to postpone this effort in the United States.
Whether you’ve heard of Celanese or not, you’ve used a product created with raw materials manufactured by the company. Its customers are industries as varied as agriculture, pharmaceutical, electronics, aerospace and automotive. And while it profited handsomely over the last three years, the company’s claims about where it is earning its profits are, at best, questionable. Country-by-country reporting would provide much-needed transparency and, possibly, prevent the company’s elaborate tax-dodging scheme.
What makes the company’s income reporting seem implausible is that Celanese also discloses the location of its sales, property, plant and equipment—and remarkably little of it appears to be in any of these tax havens. [See CTJ’s report on tax haven abuse for a brief explanation of why corporations’ claims of massive profits in tax haven countries is unbelievable.]
In 2015, Celanese reports that $146 million of its $5.67 billion in worldwide sales are generated in a residual “other” category of countries, which includes but is presumably not limited to these four tax havens. These “other” countries also represent just $70 million of the company’s worldwide $3.6 billion in property, plant and equipment.
So how can it be that a small group of tax havens in which Celanese has at most 2.6 percent of its sales and 1.9 percent of its property is nonetheless generating 30 percent of its worldwide income?
The only information about the company’s Bermuda operations in its financial statement is the existence of a subsidiary, Elwood Limited. If the well-documented income shifting hijinks of other big multinationals are any indicator, Celanese’s Bermuda subsidiary exists solely to act as a home away from home for the company’s intellectual property, patents and trademarks, most of which were really generated in a country in which the company actually has sales, property and employees.
Rep. Boustany has argued that country-by-country reporting would result in foreign governments engaging in “fishing expeditions” to ferret out sensitive information about corporate practices. But even the limited disclosures made by Celanese show that in fact, the main effect of country-by-country reporting would be to put an end to the tall tales many corporations are creating about where they earn their profits. Like the proverbial “fish that got away,” the invisible manufacturing plants allegedly creating nearly a third of Celanese’s income in four tax havens are a whopper, but a far more harmful one than your average fish tale.