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Interpreting corporate tax data shouldn’t be like playing “Where’s Waldo.” Analysts seeking to understand whether big corporations are engaged in tax-avoidance hijinks should be aided, not thwarted, by the information that companies make available in their annual financial reports. A long-brewing effort to require country-by-country (CbC) reporting of corporate income and taxes promises to help demysticize things a few years down the road. But meanwhile, a new, voluntary disclosure of detailed data on the location of offshore profits by the shoe manufacturer Skechers gives a tantalizing taste of just how helpful these disclosures might someday be in ferreting out offshore tax avoidance.
U.S. multinational corporations, in the annual financial reports they file with the Securities and Exchange Commission, generally report their income and taxes in two broad categories: “United States” and “foreign.” And even at this level, Skechers’ 2014 annual financial report raises red flags: how could a shoe manufacturer that says 89 percent of its property, plant and equipment (and 66 percent of its sales) are in the United States report that only 43 percent of its income is attributable to the U.S.?
But Skechers, in what to our knowledge is an unprecedented public disclosure, breaks out its foreign income further, to include the specific countries in which it reports substantial profits. It turns out that in 2014, 71 percent of what Skechers called foreign income, and 44 percent of its worldwide income, was apparently “earned” in the Bailiwick of Jersey. Yet the company reports having no meaningful sales, and no property, in Jersey. Composed of the Island of Jersey and surrounding uninhabited rocks, Jersey is generally recognized to be one of the more notorious foreign tax havens, and not a hotbed of shoe production or sales.
So why would Skechers volunteer this information? The simple answer is that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) asked them to. When the SEC sent a letter to Skechers asking for more detail on the company’s foreign income, the company obliged. Having made this disclosure in a public letter to the SEC, the company presumably saw no point in not also including this information in their annual report.
Would we see similar bombshells if Apple, Microsoft, General Electric and other corporate titans were required to disclose CbC data? CTJ’s research findings on the use of offshore subsidiaries certainly suggest so. A June 2014 CTJ report found that 72 percent of Fortune 500 corporations admit having subsidiaries in known tax havens, and a May 2014 CTJ report found that American corporations are collectively stashing more than half of their subsidiaries’ profit in just 12 known tax havens. These garish statistics pretty much have to be the product of some aggressive acts of tax dodging.
As we have noted previously, the movement for CbC reporting is gaining steam, at least abroad. And if the recent disclosure from a second-tier shoe manufacturer is any indication, lawmakers interested in real corporate tax reform should be pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate CbC disclosure for all U.S-based corporations.