Apple, Google may profit on a tax holiday

Those companies and others say they’ll bring home billions in earnings—but only if they get a big tax break. Here is the whole story.

U.S. multinationals have more than $1 trillion in profits stashed in overseas subsidiaries. Some of the companies with the most money squirreled away say they’re prepared to bring a big chunk of it home. All they want in return is a temporary tax break that wouldn’t cost the U.S. Treasury anything, since it’s money that would otherwise be kept abroad and not taxed at all. The tax break would actually raise billions of dollars from applying the reduced tax rate to the money that’s been repatriated….

[A group of powerhouses that includes Cisco, Adobe, Apple, CA Technologies, Duke Energy, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Pfizer, and Qualcomm] is seeking fundamental changes in tax law, but if it can’t get them right away, it still wants the tax holiday. Its opening position is that there should be no conditions on how the money is used. [Cisco’s CEO John T.] Chambers argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last October that a repatriation might create as many as 2 million jobs.

But as President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Congress in 1937 about corporate tax evaders:

[F]ailure to pay results in shifting the tax load to the shoulders of others less able to pay and in mulcting the Treasury of the Government’s just due.

As is often the case in Washington, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal—it’s what’s legal: In this instance tax-avoidance systems with such names as the Double Irish and the Dutch Sandwich. As detailed in a Bloomberg Businessweek investigative story on May 17-23,

Forest Laboratories (FRX), which makes the blockbuster antidepressant Lexapro, sells nearly 100 percent of its drugs in the U.S.—and cuts its U.S. taxes dramatically by attributing the bulk of its profits to a law office in Bermuda. Another story in the magazine last year explained how Google reduced its income taxes by $3.1 billion over three years by shifting income to Ireland, then the Netherlands, and ultimately to Bermuda. Microsoft has used a similar arrangement. Records in the Cayman Islands and Ireland show that Facebook is setting up such a structure too.

In Washington, framing the debate is everything. CEO Chambers and his cohorts

frame the repatriation-tax holiday as something for nothing—jobs for the unemployed, dividends for shareholders, tax payments for the Treasury. But the free lunch isn’t really free. If companies are once again given a big tax break on profits they’ve kept abroad, they’ll be induced to steer even more of their income offshore. That’s a frame that puts the repatriation holiday in a decidedly unflattering light.