Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Ireland bought $8,611 per capita of product from the world's largest electronics manufacturer last year.

Of course, the country didn't actually buy the equivalent of 11.9 iPhones for every man, woman and child, but that's what it was billed for, according to figures from Hon Hai Precision Industry, the Taipei-based flagship of Foxconn Technology Group, which is Apple's largest assembler of iPhones and iPads.

In fact, the nation of 4.9 million, whose chief exports are chemicals, and machinery and transport equipment, gobbled up 29.8 percent of Hon Hai's output by revenue last year, according to data in the company's 2015 annual report. That's right, almost one in three dollars Foxconn took in revenue last year came from a country that ranks No. 61 in economic size (based on purchasing power parity), behind Hungary, Morocco and Myanmar.

As supplier to the tech stars, Foxconn is the perfect proxy for just how the industry divvies up its billings to avoid tax. Its $141 billion in sales last year puts it third among technology hardware companies, behind only chief client Apple and the latter's top rival, Samsung. Foxconn's customer list includes HP, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, Cisco, Xiaomi, Huawei and dozens more.

Where the Money Went
Ireland's share of billings for Foxconn's Hon Hai has grown over the past four years
Source: Bloomberg, Hon Hai annual report

When I queried Hon Hai's CFO in June about such a large number for such a small country, she said that's simply the domicile of invoice, and products don't necessarily get shipped there. And, without being prompted, she was quick to point out that billings to Ireland weren't for just one client. I suppose she was worried I'd conclude it was all for Apple.

Such concern wouldn't be unjustified. Hon Hai's largest client accounted for 54 percent of revenue last year, according to its annual report, which identifies the company only as Client E. Given that no other company gets close to $75 billion in outsourced orders, it's safe to conclude that Client E equals Apple.

Client E
Sales to Foxconn's largest client continue to rise on both a gross level, and as a proportion of the supplier's total revenue
Source: Hon Hai annual reports

Just to be clear, before lawyers start firing off angry emails, we don't know which Foxconn clients are routing billings through Ireland, and there's no suggestion that anyone is doing anything illegal. It can't even be proved that the motivation is to avoid tax. That can be left to the European Union and its gang of enforcers.

What can be said is that based on data from the largest contract manufacturer of electronics, the proportion of invoices going through Ireland is on the increase, despite the EU's recent investigations. The 29.8 percent Foxconn billed through the country last year contrasts with 22.1 percent in 2011. 

Oh, and want to know which country ranks third in Foxconn billings behind the U.S. and Ireland? Think small, trade-dependent and low-tax. Yup, Singapore.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Samsung sources a larger proportion of its components and assembly in-house.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net