A Not-So-Slow Boat to China

August 25th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

While U.S. political figures are wringing their hands about lackluster job creation, transnational corporations are desperately trying to hide their dirty secret: they are expanding their payrolls — just not in the United States.

The Washington Post recently published a front-page story about the fact that fewer and fewer companies are providing a geographic breakdown of their workforce in their annual financial statements, making it more difficult to track their hiring patterns.

They can get away with this because the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require this key bit of information in the mountain of data that publicly traded companies must include in filings such as their 10-K annual reports. Many companies that had chosen to report the breakdown voluntarily in the past are now deciding that the numbers are too sensitive to publish.

As the Post points out, quite a few of the non-reporters are companies that have been lobbying heavily for a special tax break on profits that they have been holding abroad for tax dodging purposes. A corporate front group called WinAmerica is arguing that a repatriation tax holiday would lead to an employment boon in the United States, even though a similar move in 2005 had no such effect.

What the Post article did not mention is that, while companies don’t have to disclose how many of their workers are based overseas, they do have to report how much of their non-financial “long-lived” assets are located abroad. This requirement stems from segment reporting rules established by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The information is usually buried in the notes to the company’s financial statement.

Assets are a reasonable proxy for headcount in assessing the extent to which large U.S. corporations are placing more of their bets on foreign countries such as China and India rather than the US of A.

For a quick case study of asset exporting, I took a look at the financial statements of the publicly traded companies included on the list of supporters on the WinAmerica website. I examined the domestic/foreign split for assets in 2010 and compared it to that of a decade earlier.

Take the five big tech companies on the list: Apple, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Oracle. From 2005 to 2010 their combined foreign assets grew by 329 percent, a rate more than one-fifth faster than the increase in their domestic assets. The most remarkable increase in foreign assets occurred at Google—a more than tenfold jump to $2.3 billion. Apple’s overseas properties increased fourfold to $710 million.

At some companies the portion of total long-lived assets held abroad is soaring. At Oracle, for instance, the figure last year reached 39 percent, up from 21 percent five years earlier.

High foreign assets levels are not limited to this group of tech giants. Pfizer has 43 percent of its assets outside the United States, Hewlett-Packard 45 percent and IBM has just over half. Even more remarkable is the case of General Electric: its foreign assets total $48.6 billion — nearly three times the $17.6 billion held at home.

GE is one of the dwindling numbers of large companies that provide a geographic breakdown of their workforce. Last year 54 percent of the company’s headcount was foreign-based — up from 42 percent a decade ago. During the ten-year period, GE added 62,000 employees abroad and only 2,000 at home.

Both in terms of their investment practices and their hiring patterns, companies such as GE have to a great extent given up on the United States even as they continue to cook up new schemes for tax breaks that will supposedly spur domestic hiring.

The trend has been long in the making. As early as the 1980s, GE made it clear it viewed itself as a global company not tethered to the U.S. In fact, the CEO at the time, Jack Welch, liked to say that, ideally, factories would be built on barges that could easily be moved from one country to another in quest of the lowest wages and weakest regulation. These days companies like GE don’t even consider docking their barges in the United States.

 

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