U.S.-based nonfinancial companies are parking record amounts of cash abroad, thanks largely to a tax code that encourages them to indefinitely keep profits from their foreign subsidiaries outside of the country.
Some of the largest companies in the U.S. greatly boosted their tax-avoiding cash stockpiles abroad last year, according to recent surveys of company filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
For example, the Jedi master of avoiding U.S. taxation, General Electric Company (NYSE:GE), increased its tax-free cash accumulation to $108 billion, up from an estimated $94 billion in 2010. Microsoft Corporation (Nasdaq:MSFT) increased its stockpile to $61 billion, up 36 percent from 2011 and up from $30 billion in 2010. Apple Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL) raised its ante to $40 billion, up 73 percent from 2011.
Sixty of the country’s largest nonfinancial corporations kept $166 billion in cash outside of the U.S. last year, shielding more than 40 percent of their profits from taxes, according to a report in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. And that’s from total overseas earnings of $1.3 trillion, up 15 percent from 2011.
A separate analysis of 83 of the largest nonfinancial corporations found that companies increased by $183 billion their foreign-based cash accumulations, representing a 14.4 percent rise from 2011, according to Bloomberg. Microsoft, Apple and Google Inc. (Nasdaq:GOOG) together hold $134.5 billion in cash abroad.
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“The corporate system is broken and it’s broken primarily because of international,” Edward Kleinbard, a tax law professor at the University of Southern California, told Bloomberg.
The Journal’s survey said the propensity to keep profits outside of the U.S. was most prevalent among tech and healthcare companies; the 26 of them on the list of 60 kept $120 billion abroad last year.
In the first quarter of 2012, the Federal Reserve estimated in its Flow of Funds report that U.S. nonfinancial companies held $1.7 trillion in liquid assets (cash) in the first quarter of last year, but that figure only accounts for U.S.-based assets. According to the IRS figures, the total amount of liquid assets in the first half of last year was much higher: $5.1 trillion. That means for every dollar a U.S. nonfinancial company held inside the U.S., it held three dollars abroad.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist and author David Cay Johnston, the reasons for hoarding cash abroad are threefold: Profits held overseas aren't taxed if they’re owned by offshore subsidiaries; companies have had no incentive to invest these proceeds due to lackluster growth in jobs and wages that suppress demand for goods and services; and mountains of cash held in offshore accounts provides a nice cushion if the economy gets worse.
Here’s Johnston from last year explaining the phenomenon:
And here are some of the other egregious hoarders, according to the two analyses:
- Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE): $73 billion in overseas nontaxed liquid assets in 2012, up from $48 billion in 2010.
- Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE:MRK): $53 billion, up from $40.4 billion in 2010.
- Johnson & Johnson: (NYSE:JNJ): $49 billion, up from $37 billion in 2010.
- Google: $33 billion in 2012.
- Devon Energy Corp (NYSE:DVN): increased its offshore cash by 48 percent last year.
- Occidental Petroleum Corporation (NYSE:OXY): up 47 percent from 2011.
- Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON): up 43 percent from 2011.