Trump's Repatriation Deal Makes No Sense for Apple

The world outside the U.S. continues to subsidize the Silicon Valley giants.

Dollar for dollar.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Corbis via Getty Images

The most interesting part of Apple's latest financial results is not what changed -- revenue from services up, iPhone unit sales down, cash pile now exceeding a quarter of a trillion dollars -- but what barely did: the effective tax rate or the scheme on which it is based.

Ever since the European Commission demanded that Apple repay 13 billion euros ($14.2 billion) in back taxes to Ireland, I've been waiting for some kind of change. Sure, Apple's two Irish subsidiaries, accused of the commission of paying almost no tax, are appealing the decision with help from Ireland itself and from Luxembourg, famous for its own sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies. Still, one might have expected Apple to reconsider its tax arrangements in view of the legal risk -- and perhaps to pay more tax in Ireland and elsewhere outside the U.S. According to the company's latest report, Apple's effective tax rate in the quarter through the end of March was down to 24.9 percent from 25.6 percent the year before.

I've described before how Apple gets to that number. It makes provisions for U.S. taxes in case it repatriates some of the overseas profits -- something that may never happen -- and separate provisions for very low foreign tax payments. For example, in 2016 it booked a $2.1 billion foreign tax provision on $41.1 billion in foreign income -- at a rate of 5.2 percent, down from 6.1 percent in 2015. On these terms, it makes no sense for Apple to jump at President Donald Trump's proposed one-time tax of 10 percent on profits -- it's cheaper to pay the foreign tax and the 3 percent interest on the bonds it issues to move the money to the U.S. 

Repatriation also appears to be unattractive for Google's parent, Alphabet, which isn't as specific about its tax reporting but which had an effective tax rate of 19.3 percent in 2016. It explains in its annual filing that the difference with the U.S. statutory rate of 35 percent comes from paying less in other jurisdictions. If indeed Alphabet paid 35 percent on its U.S. earnings, and if its foreign operations are roughly as profitable as its domestic ones, U.S. taxes would amount to about $4 billion last year, leaving about $600 million for the rest of the world -- on almost $11 billion of income, close to the rate Apple is paying.

Facebook, for its part, reported paying $195 million in foreign income taxes last year. If its foreign operations are as profitable as its domestic ones, that's less than a 3 percent effective rate.

It's remarkable that despite all the talk in Europe and elsewhere about the U.S. tech giants barely paying any taxes, nothing is changing. Late last year, the French Constitutional Council blocked a proposal for a "Google tax" on digital companies' local operations because it felt the legislation unfairly singled out tech firms. Alphabet, like Apple, continues to fight European tax assessments on a case by case basis. Most recently, it's been trying to settle a dispute with the Italian authorities involving up to 300 million euros in back taxes for 2009 through 2013. It's clearly less expensive to bargain out such settlements than to submit to European countries' normal tax regimes.

Some European countries are trying to get at the U.S. tech companies' profits indirectly. Austrian legislators believe they have figured out an ironclad way to make companies such as Alphabet and Facebook pay tax on the ads they show in Austria. They want to treat the companies' business as barter transactions -- services provided in exchange for users' personal data; that would expose the companies to the Austrian tax on advertising revenue and to the value-added tax. Obviously, these attempts, too, will be challenged by some of the world's most competent lawyers.

The world outside the U.S. continues to subsidize the Silicon Valley giants. Governments are either outwitted in the courts, shamed into believing that a harder line would mean stifling innovation, or persuaded to accept settlements that don't cover the lost tax revenue. Leveling the playing field would require more of a joint effort, for example, from the European Union or groups such as G-20. Luckily for the tech firms, that has proved elusive.

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

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