Avoiding taxes the way big corporations do it
I’m an accountant. My college degrees and CPA license are the intellectual properties that enable me to earn a living. Now suppose that I formed a corporation to deliver my services, then took my diplomas and license off my wall and placed them in a safe deposit box in a Luxembourg bank. When clients came to my Oregon office, I would explain that the value of my services was represented by the diplomas and license now held in the offshore bank, and they should send their payment to my corporation housed at a PO Box in Luxembourg. Using this little accounting trick, I would be able to avoid paying U.S. taxes, until I brought those “foreign” funds back to the United States.
If I spun this ludicrous tale to my clients, I expect most of them would leave my practice immediately and find a different accountant.
But this accounting acrobatics is exactly the sort of transaction that hundreds of U.S. multinational corporations use to avoid paying billions of dollars annually in U.S. corporate income taxes. Technology, pharmaceutical and entertainment corporations, whose profits depend heavily on patents, trademarks and copyrights, have aggressively shifted profits from the United States, to one of dozens of tax havens that charge little or no taxes.
Bloomberg Business Week recently illustrated examples of this tax avoiding behavior: Forest Laboratories “sells nearly 100 percent of its drugs in the U.S. – and cuts its U.S. taxes dramatically by attributing the bulk of its profits to a law office in Bermuda … Google reduced its income taxes by $3.1 billion over three years by shifting income to Ireland, then the Netherlands, and ultimately to Bermuda.”
These tax avoiding strategies cost the U.S. Treasury more than $100 billion a year. And they have led to more than $1.2 trillion in liquid assets being stashed offshore by U.S. corporations.
A new coalition of corporate tax avoiders including Google, Apple Computer, Pfizer, Duke Energy and an array of industry trade groups are demanding that Congress pass a special tax break that would reward these tax avoiders who “repatriate,” or bring back their offshore stash to the U.S., with a 5.25 percent tax rate, not the 35 percent corporate income tax that would otherwise be owed. The coalition calls itself WIN America, but the numbers involved in the corporate tax holiday mean a real loss for America. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has calculated this tax windfall would cost $80 billion, money that would be made up with higher taxes on small business people like me, or through reduced government services and infrastructure upon which all businesses, communities and families depend.
Tax amnesty programs are nothing new. The IRS has a couple of times allowed individual taxpayers to declare hidden offshore assets and pay both the full tax due and penalties in exchange for avoiding prosecution and possible jail time. While much corporate tax-dodging through the use of tax havens is neither hidden, nor illegal under current law favoring U.S. multinationals, it wholly stems from corporations who engage in these transactions for the principle purpose of shifting profits between countries in order to avoid taxes. Creating an incentive for such anti-social behavior through preferential tax rates will only serve to accelerate the offshoring of U.S. profits through fictional transactions.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened in 2004, when Congress enacted the American Jobs Creation Act, a bill which promised that a 5.25 percent tax rate would bring home billions of dollars that supporters claimed would be reinvested to create American jobs. The promise never materialized; most of the funds went instead to boost shareholder dividends and stock buybacks. Many of the biggest beneficiaries of the tax break, including Pfizer, Honeywell, and Hewlett Packard, laid off thousands of workers just months after receiving their tax windfall. That tax holiday, and the promise of another, has dramatically accelerated the amount of U.S. profits shifted offshore.
All of my education took place in the United States, as do all of my client meetings. The vast majority of Americans find it right and logical that I have a duty to pay taxes in the U.S. It is time that the same logic applies to multinational corporations, and that we stop accepting fairy tales about patents and trademarks held in some far-away bank vault.
Setzler is president and founder of TriLibrium, a public accounting and business advisory firm located in Portland, Oregon.