According to the old saying, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. But what do you call corporate executives who want the country to adopt a business tax policy that has failed miserably in the past? Crazy like a fox.
Such self-serving fiscal delusion is on full display in the current push for a “repatriation holiday.” A slew of major U.S.-based corporations are proposing that they be allowed to bring home many billions of dollars in largely untaxed overseas profits and, for a limited time, pay only a fraction of the statutory rate. According to a corporate front group called Working to Invest Now in America, or WinAmerica, this is “a common sense solution that will immediately inject up to $1 trillion into our economy and provide businesses with the security and certainty they need to help get Americans back to work.”
The group should really be called ConAmerica. The corporate titans are proposing a scheme that was tried and failed miserably only a few years ago, not to mention the fact that it would reward big business for practices that already deprive the country of huge amounts of tax revenue and countless jobs.
First, a bit of background. Although the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is designed to tax corporations on their worldwide profits, it contains a provision that allows companies to defer paying domestic taxes on overseas earnings as long as they stay with a firm’s foreign affiliates.
That may sound reasonable to some, but what corporate giants designate as overseas profits actually includes disguised domestic earnings. That’s because corporate tax dodging frequently takes the form of accounting gimmicks that shift reported earnings to subsidiaries in tax haven countries like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
This is done in a variety of ways. A company may transfer ownership of valuable patents and trademarks to a tax haven subsidiary, which then collects royalties from other parts of the company. Earnings stripping is a similar ploy that involves bogus interest payments. And then there’s the big daddy of multinational tax schemes: transfer pricing. This is the practice of exchanging goods and services among parts of a corporation at rates that have little relation to real costs.
The objective of all these tricks is to maximize reported income in countries that subject profits to minimum taxation—or none at all. Thanks to the deferral rule, a lot less is paid to Uncle Sam. It is estimated that transfer pricing costs the U.S. Treasury more than $28 billion a year.
Having engaged in this brazen tax dodging, corporations now want the right to bring the profits back home and get another tax break through the repatriation holiday. Their complaints about the need from relief from U.S. tax rates sound a lot like those of the proverbial murder who kills his parents and then pleads for sympathy as an orphan.
What makes the chutzpah quotient of the repatriation holiday advocates even higher is that they are promoting the idea in the face of documented evidence of its ineffectiveness. In 2004 a similar big business campaign succeeded in getting Congress to enact a repatriation holiday that brought the statutory tax rate on the returning profits down to 5.25 percent for the following year only. The plan was dressed up as the Homeland Investment Act, which was part of the American Jobs Creation Act.
The 2005 tax holiday was hailed as a success by corporate apologists for repatriating some $312 billion in profits for more than 800 large companies led by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly.
What they don’t emphasize is that the plan was a dismal failure in its stated purpose of generating jobs and investment in the United States. This should not have come as a complete surprise, since Congress allowed companies to use the repatriated profits for other purposes such as acquisitions and repayment of debt. Another factor was the old problem of the fungibility of money.
According to an analysis produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the 2005 repatriation holiday did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, domestic employment or R&D spending. The biggest impact, the report found, was an increase in stock buybacks by corporations, which was not one of the intended purposes of the legislation.
In other words, the tax holiday was a scam. Instead of stimulating job growth, it served as yet another way for large corporations to continue shrinking their contribution to the costs of running the U.S. government that serves them so well. In fact, some of the companies that benefited most from the holiday—such as Merck—carried out large-scale layoffs of U.S. workers during the time they were bringing those profits home.
Six years later, the same misleading claims are being made for repeating the practice that did so little good. What makes this especially frustrating is that it is taking place not long after Barack Obama made the issue of deferred taxes an issue in his presidential election campaign and then sought to increase taxation of foreign profits during his first year in office. Those plans have been forgotten, and now the repatriation holiday proponents are riding high, despite estimates that the scheme would result in a loss of $78 billion in federal revenues over the next decade.
Fortunately, not everyone is being taken in by WinAmerica. Along with stalwart critics such as Citizens for Tax Justice—which calls the idea “amnesty for corporate tax dodgers”—the repatriation holiday is being attacked by newer groups such as US Uncut, whose main target is WinAmerica ringleader Apple Inc.
One of US Uncut’s slogans is “Tax Dodging. Is there an app for that?” Actually, no app is necessary as long as Congress goes on buying the tax-break snake oil of Corporate America.