Ireland and Apple Brace for the Worst as Tax Endgame Nears

  • Decision on Apple’s tax dealings may come as soon as July
  • Irish officials expect adverse decision; vow to fight on

While Europe and global financial markets are consumed by the prospect of Brexit, business rolls on in Brussels.

Near the top of the agenda for investors continues to be the European Commission’s probe into Apple Inc.’s tax arrangements in Ireland, with both the company and the Irish authorities bracing for a decision that the Irish provided the iPhone maker with illegal state aid through a sweetheart deal.

When will we get the decision?

In the first clues to a firm timeline for a decision on a probe that opened in 2014, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan told Bloomberg on Thursday in Luxembourg that the commission may publish a decision in July, though “we don’t know that with certainty.”

What’s the verdict likely to be?

In preliminary findings in 2014, European antitrust authorities said Apple’s tax arrangements were improperly designed to give the company a financial boost in exchange for jobs in Ireland. While the Commission continued its probe, asking for more detailed documentation, Irish authorities continue to expect a negative finding. That sense was likely heightened by three decisions since October, where the EU ruled that other governments elsewhere in the region had illegally provided aid to companies.

What’s at stake?

There’s a range of estimates out there. In a worst-case scenario, Apple may face a $19 billion bill if the government ultimately loses and is forced to recoup tax from the company, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Rod Hall. Matt Larson of Bloomberg Intelligence puts the figure at more than $8 billion.

Brussels lawyers speculate that the final amount could be much less, in the hundreds of millions range -- large enough to send a message to companies like Apple and the countries that dole out tax breaks, but not too large to risk creating havoc in case the decisions get overturned in the EU courts.

The reality is that, nobody knows for sure, and it’s worth noting that the repayment orders in other state aid cases have been relatively small. The commission in January ordered Belgium to recover about 700 million euros ($787 million) in illegal tax breaks to at least 35 companies, including Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and BP Plc. And last year, for example, Starbucks Corp. was ordered to pay just 30 million euros in back taxes to the Netherlands government.

Bloomberg.com: Google EU

What Does Apple Say?

Apple has firmly denied using any tax gimmicks, but is well aware of the potential effect of a negative finding. In a filing, the company said the commission could force Ireland to recover past taxes covering a period of up to a decade. Apple said the amount may be “material,” but as of late March, it couldn’t put a figure on the number.

Who gets the cash?

Notionally, Ireland, even though the government says it doesn’t want it. Why doesn’t Ireland want the cash, which after all could be equivalent to about all of the nation’s corporate tax last year? There’s a bigger picture here, according to briefing notes provided to the incoming finance minister last month; a negative decision would hurt the country’s reputation and create uncertainty around its tax offering, which has been a key factor in attracting companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. to Dublin.

So, will the EU decision end the matter?

Absolutely not. Noonan, the Irish finance chief, this week repeated his mantra that Ireland had done nothing wrong and any decision will be fought to the death. Well, challenged in the EU courts at least. Given that Apple employs about 5,500 people in Ireland and the nation is so reliant on U.S. investment, the government can ill-afford not to be seen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Apple. One caveat though: Prime Minister Enda Kenny lost his majority in February’s election and is now much more exposed to attacks from a stronger left, which believe companies like Apple should pay more tax.

What happens to the money while Ireland appeals the decision?

Ireland could be sitting on the cash for “several years,” according to the briefing notes, indicating that the money will move from Apple’s bank account to Ireland’s while lawyers make millions arguing over the decision. The EU’s decision will only be the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end.

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