No one accused Apple of having violated US tax laws. The Senate subcommittee investigation and hearings merely exposed how Apple is dodging income taxes by doing what multinationals do: taking advantage of the handouts and loopholes that the US Congress and governments around the world are handing them. Tim Cook emerged smelling like a rose, the triumphant CEO of America’s most iconic welfare queen. Alas, much of the discussion was based on a fairytale.
Apple got into this pickle because it had decided to fund a juicy stock buy-back and dividend program by taking on a record $17 billion in debt rather than paying income taxes on “repatriating” part of its $102 billion in “offshore” cash.
The Senate investigation showed that Apple sheltered at least $74 billion from US income taxes between 2009 and 2012 by using a “complex web” of offshore mailbox companies. One such Irish subsidiary with no employees made $30 billion and didn’t pay a dime to a single government anywhere, not even Ireland. Another Irish mailbox company paid 0.05% in taxes on $22 billion in profit. Over the years, these untaxed “offshore” profits accumulated to $102 billion held by Irish subsidiaries – the moolah Apple refused to “repatriate.”
Turns out, Apple wouldn’t have to repatriate it. The money is already safely ensconced in TBTF banks in New York. The Irish mailbox subsidiaries, on whose books this money is for accounting purposes, transferred it to bank accounts in New York; it is managed by an Apple subsidiary in Reno, Nevada; and Apple’s accountants in Austin, Texas, keep the books, according to the Senate report that vivisected Apple’s tax dodge strategies.
“Apple does not use tax gimmicks,” Apple wrote lamely in response. It’s just that money doesn’t stop at borders or oceans; accounting does. So, in these crazy times of ours, where fairytales are reality, “offshore” actually means “onshore.” The difference between taxed income and untaxed income.
In this manner, US corporations have stashed away a $1.6 trillion of untaxed profits in “offshore” subsidiaries. And yet, as in Apple’s case, much of that is actually in the US. Just because the cash is nominally held by an offshore mailbox company doesn’t mean that it can’t be transferred to the US, where it can do the job money is supposed to do – beget more money.
That explains another corporate mystery. When Congress, after heavy lobbying by the largest US corporations, declared a “repatriation holiday” in 2004 to encourage the “return” of $300 billion to be invested in the US, nothing happened. The “repatriated” profits were taxed at the minuscule rate of 5.25% – less than the payroll taxes withheld from their US working stiffs. The companies made some adjustments on their books. But there were no investments and no hiring because the money had already been deployed in the US. The New York Times reported:
On the contrary, some of the companies that brought back the most money laid off thousands of workers, and a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research later concluded that 92 cents on every dollar was used for dividends, stock buybacks or executive bonuses. A study by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that a similar program would result in $79 billion in forgone tax revenue over a decade.
Apple is among the two dozen multinationals that are flailing their arms at Congress to obtain a new “repatriation holiday” that would allow them to “repatriate” hundreds of billions at a super-low tax rate. In return, they dangle in front of us the promise of investment and jobs. Yet much of that money is already in the US. It would not cause any additional hiring or investment. It would simply be a handout benefitting the largest behemoths, but not the hundreds of thousands of smaller companies that don’t have the resources to lobby Congress or make special deals with governments around the world. They don’t have the time and money to create that “complex web” of offshore mailbox companies but are instead struggling on a daily basis to stay alive in their dog-eat-dog world.
Beyond the unfair advantages that these loopholes bestow on a few large companies, but not on smaller ones that get raked over the coals by the tax code, there is a broader fairness problem, as Senator John McCain pointed out in his opening statement: “As the shadow of sequestration encroaches on hard-working American families, it is unacceptable that corporations like Apple are able to exploit tax loopholes to avoid paying billions in taxes.”
To identify the root cause of the problem, the Senator doesn’t have to look far. The only entity to blame is Congress. It’s addicted to the corporate money flow that keeps campaigns greased. It threatens or promises changes to the tax code to milk these companies. And it loves to succumb to lobbying. That’s how these loopholes ended up in the tax code. They didn’t get there on their own.