We retired Tax Justice Blog in April 2017. For new content on issues related to tax justice, go to www.justtaxesblog.org
A cursory glance at the business practices of the latest inversion candidate, IHS, quickly dispels the erroneous anti-tax talking point that corporations are renouncing their citizenship because the U.S. tax rate is high.
Earlier this week, data solutions provider IHS revealed a planned merger with a British competitor, Markit. The Wall Street Journal labeled the announcement another example of a company inverting to take advantage of another country’s lower tax rate. Such pronouncements attempt to absolve U.S. companies instead of holding them accountable for brazen tax avoidance.
As we often point out, a broad swath of profitable Fortune 500 pay nowhere near the statutory 35 percent corporate tax rate. The federal tax code regrettably offers a plethora of loopholes that allow corporations to whittle or altogether eliminate their tax bills by writing off expenses for equipment depreciation, research, manufacturing, executive stock options and, in the case of IHS, shifting their U.S.-earned profits offshore.
These intentional loopholes have made it easy for big business to dodge taxes while staying within the confines of the law. Nonetheless, some corporate filings often defy logic. IHS appears to have found a way to make the U.S. corporate tax rate an abstract concept, reporting virtually no taxable income in the United States despite holding most of its assets and generating most of its revenues domestically. The company reports that 87 percent of its income-producing assets are in the United States and more than 60 percent of its revenues are from U.S. customers, yet virtually none of its worldwide profits are taxed in the United States. Further, IHS has enjoyed $992 million in worldwide profits over five years but claims it only earned $6 million of that on U.S. soil.
For emphasis, all of that is worth repeating: 60 percent of IHS’s revenue is from U.S. customers, but the company claims that only about half of 1 percent of its profits are earned in the United States. IHS’s skilled (or cunning, depending on how you look at it) tax accountants and lawyers are finding ways to artificially shift its profits out of the United States and into lower-rate jurisdictions.
Over the same five-year period that IHS earned $992 million, it amassed $747 million of permanently reinvested foreign earnings, profits that it claims were earned abroad and will be kept there indefinitely. It’s hard to see exactly how IHS is “investing” its offshore cash in anything substantial since the U.S. share of its worldwide assets (again 87 percent of its income-earning assets are on U.S. soil) crept steadily upward during this period.
To be sure, tax minimization is certainly part of the story behind the IHS inversion. Our current tax rules will require IHS to pay tax on its offshore stash when it eventually ends the pretense that the money is offshore and uses the cash in the United States. But if the company inverts and becomes British, it could more easily continue its streak of reporting virtually no U.S. income and avoid ever paying taxes on its offshore hoard.
Congress is enabling IHS and other tax dodging, citizenship-renouncing companies every step of the way. Lawmakers could easily prevent companies such as Pfizer, Johnson Controls and IHS from inverting. And it could also curb tax avoidance strategies like earnings stripping that allow multinationals to shift so much of their income outside the United States in the first place.