Corporations are stashing more and more of their profits overseas, taking advantage of legal loopholes to avoid paying hundreds of billions in U.S. taxes, says a new report. The corporations involved include household names like Nike, Apple and Goldman Sachs.
The Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (FACT Coalition) analyzed SEC filings from 367 Fortune 500 companies. In 2009, U.S.-based multinationals held less than $1.25 trillion in overseas tax havens — and by 2015, that number climbed to $2.5 trillion. “To put that in context, it is an amount larger than the GDP of France,” said Clark Gascoigne, the deputy director of FACT, a coalition that includes Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.
“Every year, corporations collectively report that they have tens of billion more in cash stashed offshore than they did the year before,” said Matthew Gardner of ITEP. “The hard fact is that the U.S. tax code incentivizes tax haven abuse.”
American tax laws allow corporations to stash profits overseas and indefinitely delay “repatriation.” While companies are technically required to disclose to the SEC how much they would have paid in U.S. taxes if they hadn’t offshored profits, in practice, few corporations report these numbers. Instead, they take advantage of a loophole in the law which allows companies to opt-out if calculating the tax bill is “not practicable.”
Only 58 of the 298 Fortune 500 companies actually reported how much they avoided by booking profits overseas: $212 billion in total. Using this data, the FACT Coalition extrapolated the likely total tax-avoidance for all 298 companies. In aggregate, they estimate, these corporations hold $2.5 trillion in profits offshore, effectively avoiding $717.8 billion in U.S. taxes.
The report spotlights some of the most egregious examples:
- Nike operates 55 overseas tax haven subsidiaries, including 3 in Bermuda — which has a 0% corporate tax rate, and where Nike does not operate a single actual shoe store. In total, Nike reported $10.7 billion in overseas profits — but paid only a 1.4 % tax rate.
- Goldman Sachs operates 987 separate subsidiaries in offshore tax havens, including 537 in the Cayman Islands, a country that does not levy any corporate taxes. In total, Goldman holds $28.6 billion offshore.
- Goldman is just one of a number of companies that received federal bailout money from the U.S. government and take advantage of lucrative tax havens. The report also highlights: Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley, which in total operate 2,342 tax haven subsidiaries overseas.
- The most dramatic example is Apple. The company holds $214.9 billion in overseas shelters, and if it paid taxes on those profits, it would owe $65.4 billion. Regulators are taking note: the EU recently fined Apple $14.5 billion for improperly stashing profits in Ireland, and evading European taxes.
Overall, companies tend to tuck their profits in locations where they don’t actually do much real business. According to the Congressional Research Service, nearly 50 percent of offshore profits are reported in just five countries: Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Only 4 percent of these companies’ foreign workforces actually works in these countries, and they account for less 7 percent of foreign investment.
Over the course of a political season dominated by debates over economic inequality and a “rigged” financial system, both presidential candidates have spoken at length about corporate offshoring.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have criticized the proliferation of “corporate inversion,” whereby a corporation buys a smaller foreign company and re-registers as a non-U.S. entity. Trump has railed against inversions and proposed a tax-holiday which would allow corporations to bring back their profits to the U.S., and pay a reduced tax rate of 10 percent.
Clinton voted for a similar plan as a senator back in 2004, but she hasn’t backed — or criticized — that strategy as a presidential candidate. Clinton has proposed an “exit tax” for companies moving overseas, and plans to restrict corporations that want to move, unless they actually do more than 50 percent of their business outside the U.S.
The FACT Coalition calls for a simple fix: Change the section of the US tax code which allows US companies to postpone paying taxes on foreign profits, and charge companies the full 35 percent corporate rate on overseas earnings. Such a proposal is unlikely to gain any traction. Politicians in both parties — from Barack Obama to Trump — have argued that a big tax bill would push corporations to abandon the U.S. altogether. Barring an overhaul in the tax code, FACT suggests regulators could force corporations to disclose more thoroughly their overseas holdings — so that taxpayers at least know how much corporations are paying.