Like the iPhone 7, Apple's Tax Avoidance Scheme Remained About the Same in 2016 as Well


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The annual financial report that Apple released last week indicated two things: One, the company continues funneling money offshore to avoid U.S. taxes on a scale unmatched by any other U.S. company; and two, in spite of the European Commission’s (EC) recent finding that Apple has used its Irish subsidiary for an elaborate profit shifting scheme to illegally avoid taxes, the company has no intention of admitting any wrongdoing.

With the addition of its latest $29 billion in offshore cash, Apple now has amassed a $216 billion offshore stockpile, on which it appears to have paid a foreign tax rate of less than 4 percent. This means its unpaid U.S. tax bill is up to $67 billion. It seems the company remains adamantly opposed to paying taxes to any government on its alleged Irish profits.

The new financial report also shows that Apple’s spin machine doesn’t miss a beat. The EC’s August announcement made it clear that Apple must pay $14.5 billion in back taxes as a result of illegal deals with the Irish government. The company’s latest annual report goes out of its way to prey on the fears of U.S. policymakers by noting that if and when it’s forced to repay its illegal Irish tax breaks, “any incremental Irish corporate income taxes potentially due would be creditable against U.S. taxes.”

This warning may explain the U.S. Treasury Department’s unfortunate public opposition to the EC ruling. Perhaps officials are convinced that if Apple pays a billion dollars of tax to Ireland on profits that will eventually be repatriated to its Cupertino headquarters, that’s a billion dollars the U.S. government will never see—even though it should.

But this thinking is both misleading and wrongheaded. In its August announcement, the EC went out of its way to point out that some of the unpaid $14.5 billion could go to the United States, rather than Ireland, “if the US authorities were to require Apple to pay larger amounts of money to their US parent company for this period to finance research and development efforts.” Put another way, the EC’s main concern is not that Apple pays tax to Ireland, but that the company pays owed taxes to the country in which Apple’s allegedly Irish profits really were earned.

Congress certainly has both the motive and the means to require Apple to pay its taxes. It could require Apple (and other companies shifting their intangible profits from the U.S. to foreign tax havens, for that matter) to pay their fair share by ending deferral of tax on offshore profits. This would give an immediate shot in the arm to U.S. tax collections, and it would help counteract the corrosive public fear that tax rules are written for and by powerful corporate interests.

Beyond changing international tax rules, Congress could prevent Apple’s rampant tax avoidance by paring back more conventional U.S. tax breaks as well.

Besides indefinitely stockpiling even more cash offshore to avoid U.S. taxes, Apple further reduced its U.S. income tax bill by $407 million using tax breaks for executive stock options. The research and development tax credit knocked another $371 million off the company’s tax bill, and the special lower tax rate for domestic manufacturing yielded $382 million in tax reductions. These three tax breaks alone netted Apple more than $1.1 billion in U.S. tax breaks last year. We have argued that each of these tax break are unwarranted giveaways that should be repealed—but even defenders of these tax breaks should agree that it makes no sense to give them to a company whose tax avoidance strategies are just as inventive as the sleek products it manufactures. 

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