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A new report by Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), finds that Fortune 500 companies are now holding $2.5 trillion in earnings offshore. The report finds that holding these earnings offshore allows companies to avoid an estimated $718 billion in taxes. Given the huge amount of revenue at stake, it is no wonder that congressional leaders and even the presidential candidates have begun looking at these earnings as a potential source of government revenue.
The key driver of offshore tax avoidance by U.S. companies is the tax loophole that allows companies to defer paying taxes on their foreign profits until they are repatriated to the United States. This provision creates a huge incentive for companies to shift and hold their income in low- or no-tax jurisdictions (aka tax havens) because it allows them to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
The most prominent example of a company engaging in extensive offshore tax avoidance is Apple. According the report, Apple is holding as much as $215 billion offshore on which it owes an estimate $65.4 billion in taxes, meaning that it has managed to pay a tax rate of only 4.6 percent on its offshore earnings. A report from the European Commission found that the company accomplished this in large part by holding about $115 billion in Ireland virtually tax-free.
As the report finds, Apple is not alone in its tax avoidance. Financial service company Citigroup is avoiding $12.7 billion in taxes on the $45.2 billion in earnings they have offshore. The sneaker and clothing giant Nike is avoiding $3.6 billion in taxes on their $10.7 in profit offshore. In fact, a total of 298 of the Fortune 500 companies declare holding some amount of earnings offshore for tax purposes.
The issue of what to do about these offshore funds has become so important that it was discussed during the recent presidential candidate debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For his part, Trump has proposed requiring companies to immediately pay a 10 percent tax rate on their offshore earnings. Unlike Trump, Clinton has been less clear about her plan for the offshore earnings, but she has proposed previously to raise $275 billion in revenue from “business tax reform,” which mirrors the amount of revenue that would be raised by President Barack Obama’s proposal to allow companies to pay a rate of just 14 percent on their offshore earnings.
While both approaches may generate some money in the short term, they would end up giving companies a huge tax break on their offshore earnings. Rather than paying a discounted rate, the best option would be to require companies to immediately pay the full amount, $718 billion by our estimate, they owe on their accumulated offshore earnings. Going forward, companies should be required to pay U.S. taxes immediately on their offshore earnings (subtracting taxes already paid to foreign governments), which would put an end to any tax advantage companies receive by shifting their profits into tax havens.
Unfortunately, Congress appears to be headed on a path toward allowing companies to pay a discounted tax rate on their offshore earnings. In a recent series of interviews, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both noted that a corporate tax reform legislation with some form of repatriation was a possible area of compromise in 2017. Hopefully, lawmakers will resist the relentless lobbying of corporations to give them a tax break and instead put an end to offshore tax avoidance once and for all.