We retired Tax Justice Blog in April 2017. For new content on issues related to tax justice, go to www.justtaxesblog.org
It’s far more common to see bare feet than sneakers on the streets and beaches of Bermuda, but major athletic footwear manufacturer Nike reports having six subsidiary companies on this island nation with population of about 65,000 people.
That’s six less than the dozen it reported last year, but it’s still a lot. If it sounds a bit fishy, it’s because it is.
As CTJ documented in a June report, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies (72 percent in 2013) disclose having subsidiaries in tax havens—countries that levy little or no tax on at least some corporate profits.
Nike is one of the more entertaining examples of this. CTJ noted last year that Nike admitted having a dozen subsidiaries in Bermuda—and had named almost all of them after specific brands of Nike shoes. One plausible explanation for this naming convention is the company has shifted ownership of intangible property (patents, etc.) related to these shoes into the Bermuda subsidiaries. We can’t know this, of course, but the obvious question to ask is this: if you’re a sneaker manufacturer with a dozen subsidiaries located in a tiny country where the most popular footwear is flip-flops, what legitimate economic rationale can there be for this?
CTJ’s analysis of Nike’s Bermuda subsidiaries drew a little attention last year, so we were eager to see whether Nike’s newest annual report would continue disclosing these subsidiaries, especially since some of the biggest offshore tax avoiders have discreetly scaled back their disclosure of tax haven subsidiaries in recent years. Unfortunately, a loose accounting rule allows companies to get away with only disclosing subsidiaries that are “significant.” So it was no big surprise that when Nike released its 2014 financial report late last Friday, fully half of the Bermuda subsidiaries they company reported owning last year had disappeared from their subsidiary list.
So what happened to the missing Nike subsidiaries? It’s possible that they were sold. But it’s also possible that the company simply hopes it can get away with not disclosing this potentially-embarrassing information going forward.
One thing is clear: whatever else may have changed in the past year, Nike definitely still has substantial foreign cash stashed in low-tax havens. We know this because Nike is one of the relatively-few Fortune 500 companies that disclose how much tax it would pay on repatriation of its permanently reinvested earnings (PRE). The company estimates that if it repatriated its offshore cash, it would have a $2.1 billion tax bill on their $6.6 billion in PRE. This is a 32 percent tax rate, the implication of which is that they’ve paid about 3% on their offshore profits so far. And it’s hard to find a foreign tax rate that low outside of, say, Bermuda.
The waters of international corporate tax avoidance are murky. It’s usually impossible for the layperson to have any idea what sort of tax dodges big multinationals engage in, especially since they cannot convene a special congressional investigation. Data on foreign subsidiaries are one of the few easily available indicators of likely tax avoidance. We should have more access to this data, not less.