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Export Products, Not Profits

Executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter testified on Capitol Hill this week regarding foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This sideshow distracts from the circus.

The policy debate in Washington, if not the political chatter, fixates on taxes. By sheltering cash in foreign countries, Google, Facebook, and other U.S.-based companies hide profits from the American public the way foreign provocateurs hide their identities on their online platforms.

Do the tech companies publicly complain about the latter to hide the former?

Speaking of hiding, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, shelters three-fifths of its cash and marketable securities overseas, according to Bloomberg. This amount to more than $92 billion.

Facebook, holding 23 percent of its cash and marketable securities overseas, hardly looks like a particularly egregious malefactor. But the $32 billion Facebook squirrels away abroad puts it tenth on the ignominious list in absolute dollar amount.

Preachy tech companies stand as the worst offenders in tax avoidance. According to Bloomberg, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and Cisco Systems transfer much higher percentages of their profits abroad than even Google and Facebook. In total, American companies shield an estimated $2.5 trillion from Uncle Sam by hiding the money abroad.

“Because these companies control the world’s most important tech platforms, from smart phones to app stores to the map of our social relationships, their power is growing closer to that of governments than of mere corporations,” Farhad Manjoo wrote of Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook in Wednesday’s New York Times. The assertion is hardly hyperbole. Together, the Frightful Five, as Manjoo calls them, stash $434 billion abroad. That’s $87 billion in taxdollars lost. Think about that the next time Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page lecture you on social responsibility or tout themselves as good corporate citizens.

The Trump tax plan seeks to “bring back trillions of dollars that are currently kept offshore to reinvest in the American economy.”

Slashing the corporate rate from 35 percent to 20 percent — about three percent below the global average — figures to coax much of that money back home. The nine-page outline of the Republican tax plan maintains:

The framework transforms our existing “offshoring” model to an American model. It ends the perverse incentive to keep foreign profits offshore by exempting them when they are repatriated to the United States. It will replace the existing, outdated worldwide tax system with a 100% exemption for dividends from foreign subsidiaries (in which the U.S. parent owns at least a 10% stake).

To transition to this new system, the framework treats foreign earnings that have accumulated overseas under the old system as repatriated. Accumulated foreign earnings held in illiquid assets will be subject to a lower tax rate than foreign earnings held in cash or cash equivalents. Payment of the tax liability will be spread out over several years.

This enables a rate reduction that does not necessarily equal a revenue reduction, at least not a drastic one.

How might the administration cut corporate rates but not corporate revenues? One must do more than a measly five percent repatriation tax, as Congressional Republicans proposed in the legislation they rolled out on Thursday.

Reducing the corporate rate from 35 percent to 20 percent may not reduce federal revenues if the 20 percent rate extends to foreign income earned by U.S. companies. Credit for foreign taxes paid enables U.S. companies to bring dollars back to where they belong. Assuming a 10 percent foreign tax on income, the company would then pay a 10 percent tax to the IRS — making total liability no greater than the 20 percent U.S. rate. The profits from past years currently sheltered overseas similarly would experience an incremental tax on income brought back to the U.S. at a rate that makes up the difference between the foreign cut and the 20 percent stateside corporate tax.

Such a law not only restores past profits, and the taxes owed on them, to their country of origin, it encourages future to earnings stay in the United States as well. By imposing a modest 20 percent rate, and enforcing collection on the difference between the foreign and American rates, the IRS makes repatriation an easy decision.

Why, under such a tax regime, would Microsoft, an American company, continue to keep 97 percent of its cash and marketable securities overseas? Why would Apple hold just seven percent of its cash and marketable securities in the United States? Why would Oracle exile 88 percent?

The United States currently imposes an antiquated tax system on corporations that invites them to hoard their money abroad. One can’t blame businesses in the business of making a buck to stay faithful to their mission of making a buck. Elected officials who enabled them to do that at the expense of the American taxpayer deserve blame. But they can redeem themselves by passing a tax bill that encourages profits to return through lower rates and a closing of those loopholes that send the cash of American companies to Ireland, the Bahamas, Singapore, and points beyond.

Export products, not profits.

Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.

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