The Great American Tax Heist
Tax attorneys and corporate accountants use a blizzard of tax loopholes to book US-earned profits in subsidiaries located in offshore countries with minimal or no taxes.
With passage of their budget framework, Republicans in Congress have embarked on a preposterous mission of passing—in three weeks—a tax bill that still hasn’t been released to the public as of this writing. They plan to pass the bill, which is likely to end up near 1,000 pages in length, with only Republican votes.
This dynamic will set off a lobbyist scrum. This is when the rules get fixed to benefit the few, with lies and false promises floated to delude the many. One of the most egregious examples is the tax-repatriation and territoriality provisions, a “reform” that will reward tax avoidance by the big corporations.
Today global corporations are able to avoid paying US taxes by a legal loophole known as deferral. Taxes are deferred on an estimated $2.6 trillion in profits that corporations book as having been earned offshore. Republicans plan to allow “repatriation” of those funds at a deeply discounted tax rate (Trump has suggested 10 percent).
“We’ll be bringing back, probably, very close to 100 percent of the money back into our country where it can be put to work, and jobs will be created,” Trump boasted in front of a Pennsylvania crowd of truck drivers. “My Council of Economic Advisers estimates that this change, along with a lower tax rate, will likely give the typical American household a $4,000 pay raise.”
That sounds great, but don’t start checking out vacation spots. Everything about that statement is bunk. For the most part, the money isn’t earned abroad. Tax attorneys and corporate accountants use a blizzard of tax loopholes and dodges to book US-earned profits in subsidiaries located in offshore countries with minimal or no taxes.
A recent study by US PIRG and the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy found that American multinational companies collectively reported 43 percent of their foreign earnings in five small tax haven countries: Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Yet these countries accounted for only 4 percent of the companies’ foreign workforces and just 7 percent of their foreign investments.
Nike, for example, holds offshore for tax purposes $12.2 billion, on which it owes $4.1 billion in US taxes. As the report noted, “Nike likely does this by licensing trademarks for its products to subsidiaries in Bermuda and then essentially charging itself royalties to use those trademarks. The shoe company, which operates 1,142 retail stores throughout the world, does not operate one in Bermuda.
The money isn’t held abroad. It is invested in global markets, much of it in US Treasuries and stocks. The companies can’t use the money directly for dividends or investments, but they can use the money to get low interest ratesfor their bonds or loans, and use the borrowed money for dividends or investments, while writing off the interest paid on the loans.
“Repatriation” simply rewards the companies for this tax dodge, allowing them free use of the money at a far lower tax rate. The promises that this will produce new investment, jobs, and pay raises are laughable.
With profits near record levels, the companies have all the money they need for new investments. Most don’t see enough demand to justify expansion. Instead, as Bloomberg reported, Fortune 500 companies are spending more money on stock buybacks and dividends than they earn in operating profits. This boosts the price of their stock and, not incidentally, the value of their CEOs’ stock options.
When the Bush administration passed a repatriation bill in 2004, there was no measurable effect on investment or jobs. Instead, the money went to dividends, stock buybacks, and mergers. The companies taking most advantage of “repatriation” actually then slashed jobs.
That corporate scam encouraged even more corporations to do the same bookkeeping and open the Caribbean mailboxes needed to “defer” even more taxes. Today, according to the PIRG/ITEP report, 73 percent of the Fortune 500 companies operate one or more subsidiaries in tax-haven countries—some 9,755 tax haven subsidiaries in all. They avoid about $100 billion in taxes each year. If “repatriation” passes, the newly patriotic corporations will get a massive tax break on an estimated $752 billion of taxes that they owe.
Republicans promise that adopting a “territorial” tax system will solve this problem for the future. A territorial tax system taxes only domestic profits; those booked as earned abroad go tax free. As one wag noted, this is like deterring robbery by making it legal. Essentially, it enables corporations to avoid all US tax liability by booking their profits in the most lenient tax havens across the world. Republicans promise they’ll pass some kind of “guardrails” to guard against egregious tax avoidance, or perhaps a minimum corporate tax. Believe that, and there’s a bridge in the Sierra.
This isn’t “tax reform”; it’s a heist, and the biggest corporations will make out like bandits. In the Republican “framework” for tax cuts, changes in individual taxes supposedly pay for themselves. The deep tax cuts pocketed by the very rich are paid for largely by higher taxes on one in four middle- and upper-middle-income families—particularly those with more than one child or in high-tax states and localities. The tax bill’s estimated $2.4 trillion addition to the deficit comes largely from corporate tax changes that are not paid for. Repatriation and territoriality, those muscular terms resonating flag and country, are central to that, a wet kiss to the largest corporations, rewarding them for clever tax-avoidance bookkeeping. And that’s what Trump and Republicans are using to sell the tax cuts. We can only imagine what is hidden in the small print that no one has seen yet.