Tax Bill Takes Extra Bite of Apple and Other Global Companies

  • ‘Opaque’ new tax seen preventing offshore profit-shifting
  • Koch-backed group cites concern over higher consumer prices

KBW's Gardner on Tax Reform's Impact on Multinationals

U.S. multinationals including Apple and General Electric are suddenly looking at as many as three new taxes -- estimated to raise $454.1 billion over a decade -- under the House tax bill released Thursday.

For some, their tax rates may wind up higher than they are now, experts say.

First, companies would no longer be able to escape U.S. taxes on what a Goldman Sachs research note estimated to be $3.1 trillion in earnings that they have stockpiled offshore for years. Those earnings would be taxed at rates as high as 12 percent and would generate an estimated $223 billion. Companies would have eight years to pay.

The largest stockpiles belong to Apple Inc. at $252.3 billion, followed by Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Alphabet Inc., Oracle Corp. and Johnson & Johnson, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

See the Graphic: The Biggest Overseas Cash Hoards Congress Wants to Tax

“We’ve always been a very strong advocate for comprehensive corporate tax reform,” Apple Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said in a telephone interview. “We will need to see what legislation is enacted.”

The 12 percent rate is a break -- the current tax rate for corporations is 35 percent -- but it’s still on the “borderline of being business unfriendly,” said Steven Englander, head of research and strategy at Rafiki Capital Management. President Donald Trump had proposed a top rate of 10 percent on stockpiled offshore earnings. House Speaker Paul Ryan pitched 8.75 percent.

“It’s not a game changer, but the changing tone is a disappointment,” Englander said. “It’s gone from the way forward for the tax system to a piggy bank to pay for the tax cuts.”

Two other new taxes may be more controversial. One would apply to royalty payments or other payments for “costs of goods sold” that a U.S. company makes to its related foreign subsidiaries or parents. Interest payments wouldn’t be included. Another would hit U.S. companies that receive “high returns” from foreign subsidiaries. Combined, they’d raise an estimated $231 billion over 10 years, according to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation.

‘Higher Tax Rate’

Under those new taxes, some high-margin businesses “will have a higher tax rate,” said Manal Corwin, the national leader of the international tax practice at KPMG LLP (U.S.)

“It’s going to be hard for people to absorb” due to the vagueness of the tax, said Corwin, a former top tax official in the U.S. Treasury Department.

Both levies appear aimed at preventing U.S. companies from shifting their earnings to offshore units to avoid higher U.S. taxes. While the bill that House Republicans unveiled Wednesday would cut the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent, there are lower rates elsewhere in the world. Ireland’s corporate tax rate, for example, is 12.5 percent. So the new taxes are designed to shore up the domestic U.S. tax base.

Unlike most developed countries, the U.S. applies its corporate tax rate to companies’ global earnings, but it allows them to defer paying taxes on foreign earnings until they bring those earnings home. Before releasing the bill, GOP leaders had talked of moving the U.S. from that global system to a “territorial” approach that would focus on domestic earnings.

But Corwin said the bill would tax both domestic profits and some foreign profits -- without allowing the deferral provision that has led companies to accumulate so much offshore cash.

Targeting Inversions

Payments that U.S. companies make to offshore subsidiaries or parent firms for royalties or other costs for sold goods would be taxed at 20 percent. Such payments are currently deductible -- so the tax would erase some of that benefit. It’s estimated to raise $154 billion over 10 years.

That tax “is going after inverted companies, no doubt,” said Bret Wells, a tax law professor at the University of Houston. In an inversion, a U.S. company merges with a foreign firm and transfers its tax address overseas to a lower-tax jurisdiction. After an inversion, companies can avoid U.S. taxes on royalty payments.

“This is a really big deal,” said Michael Mundaca, co-leader of the Ernst & Young Americas Tax Center and a former top Treasury tax official.

Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group that’s backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, came out against the royalty tax Thursday, saying the provision would raise costs for consumers.

Tim Phillips, the group’s president, compared the measure to the “border-adjusted tax,” or BAT, that House Speaker Paul Ryan proposed last year. A fierce lobbying effort against that tax -- which cited its potential effects on consumers -- prompted Ryan to drop it from House tax plans over the summer.

“If not improved, this ‘BAT-lite’ provision has the potential to make everyday goods more expensive for millions of Americans,” Phillips said in a news release.

‘High Returns’

The other new tax would apply an effective 10 percent rate to “high returns” that U.S. parents receive from foreign subsidiaries -- though it’s not clear what would constitute high returns. Ernst & Young said the new tax would fall on “potentially significant amounts of foreign income.” It’d raise an estimated $77 billion over 10 years.

The tax is known in policy circles as a minimum tax on future foreign earnings, but the bill and summary of the bill’s provisions don’t use that language. It says it’s intended to prevent multinationals from booking earnings overseas in low-tax jurisdictions, according to the summary.

“This was purposely opaque,” said Henrietta Treyz, director of economic policy and a managing partner at Veda Partners. “They are under strong pressure from multinationals to make sure that they don’t get hit hard.”

The new levies are in addition to the tax that would apply to all the accumulated offshore earnings. Because current law allows companies to defer taxes on foreign earnings until they bring them home, many companies resist returning those profits to the U.S., leaving them offshore indefinitely.

‘Pay It Now’

“Congress has had its eye on that pot of money for so long, for so many things,” said Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy for the American Action Forum, a right-of-center think tank. “They might as well pay it now and never again.”

The Information Technology Industry Council, which represents almost every major tech company, was initially holding its judgment on the proposal, wanting to keep working with lawmakers to shape it. Microsoft, Alphabet and Oracle declined to comment separately.

“If done right, tax reform will place American companies on a level-playing field, increase competition globally, and create more jobs for Americans,” Dean Garfield, the council’s top executive, said in an emailed statement. Tax reform was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said.

If the bill becomes law, companies would no longer have any incentive to keep their earnings stockpiled offshore. But if they bring billions in cash back to the U.S., it remains to be seen what they’ll do with it.

There’s not enough legitimate acquisition targets for tech giants like Apple or Microsoft to spend all that money, according to Andrew Silverman, an analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. That means they are likely to pour it into returning cash to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks, he said.

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