See if you can spot anything abnormal in this list of eBay’s first-quarter tax rates over the past five years:
2010: 20 percent
2011: 16 percent
2012: 17 percent
2013: 16 percent
2014: 366 percent
The auction site announced yesterday that it is taking a $3 billion tax charge to move $9 billion of its foreign earnings into the U.S., resulting in that extraordinary one-time rate. The remaining $6 billion in newly available cash gives the company the ability to do … well, it isn’t clear. The move “simply gives us greater financial flexibility,” John Donahoe, eBay’s chief executive officer, told Bloomberg News.
The natural suspicion is that eBay (EBAY) has an acquisition in mind, a possibility that Chief Financial Officer Robert Swan addressed during a conference call with analysts yesterday. Historically, he said, eBay has planned to use overseas profits for overseas purposes. “What’s changed is, the opportunities in the U.S.—while we have a strong balance sheet and our cash balance continues to grow—the opportunities in the U.S. are even bigger.”
Repatriating the money and paying higher U.S. taxes makes eBay a curious outlier among multinationals. Also yesterday, Apple (AAPL)borrowed $12 billion rather than touch the $132 billion cash it’s parking overseas, where it’s safe from the Internal Revenue Service. The biggest U.S. companies have amassed nearly $2 trillion abroad, Bloomberg News calculated in March, from the financial filings of 307 corporations. Just 22 of those companies, including Microsoft (MSFT) and IBM (IBM), account for more than half the total. The companies are hoping the government lowers corporate tax rates, establishes a special tax holiday, or otherwise allows them to import the money without paying current tax rates.
EBay shares declined as much as 5 percent today, but it’s impossible to say whether that’s because of the 10-figure tax bill, weak financial guidance from the company, or another reason.
James Cordwell, an analyst at Atlantic Equities, downgraded eBay’s stock to a neutral rating after the earnings report. None of the other 45 analysts tracked by Bloomberg changed their recommendations; 31 of them rate the stock a buy. EBay shares have declined 6.5 percent in the past month. It’s unclear what acquisitions, if any, the company may be targeting. In addition to the eBay platform, the company owns PayPal and mobile payment app Venmo. “If you look at what’s happening in the world of commerce and payments, there’s a lot of action, a lot of activity,” Donahoe told analysts. “So we continuously assess opportunities to where we think it will be strategically and financially valuable to extend our platforms.”