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Following the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s announcement (PDF) that it had closed its review of Apple’s financial disclosures, headlines like “SEC Agrees That There’s Nothing Wrong With Apple’s US Taxes” started appearing, giving the false impression that what Apple has somehow been exonerated for is its tax avoidance practices. The reality, however, is that the SEC is now satisfied that Apple is not violating the rules in the disclosure of its tax circumstances to the agency, which has nothing to do with the legal validity of its tax avoidance methods more generally. In addition, the SEC only closed its investigation after Apple agreed to disclose more information on its foreign cash, tax policies and plans for reinvestment of foreign earnings; that makes it pretty clear that the SEC did not judge the company’s previous disclosures adequate.

Much of the news coverage took its cues from a story at the Dow Jones tech news site, All Things D. called “SEC Clears Apple’s Tax Strategy.” To that site’s credit, it corrected the story, explaining that the article “was updated to make it clear that the SEC’s review concerned Apple’s tax disclosures, not the legality of its tax practices under U.S. tax law, which is the purview of the IRS.” Also relevant is a Los Angeles Times story that ran several days before All Things D’s. It got no significant pick-up from other news outlets because it rather blandly, and accurately, conveyed that this whole thing was simply a step in a bureaucratic process. Unfortunately, the flurry of stories and columns suggesting that Apple had been wrongly convicted in the court of public opinion are still out there, uncorrected, creating an impression that Apple’s tax practices are pure benevolence.  

Going beyond just the misleading headlines, articles like the editorial in the Wall Street Journal turned the SEC letter into an opportunity to argue that the Senate investigation into Apple was really just a “three-ring media circus” created by Senators to “please their political masters.” (Some believe that corporations like Apple are themselves the political masters, but that’s another matter.) But the WSJ editorial misconstrues… everything. The entire point of the Senate investigation and subsequent hearing is that what Apple does may be legal, but it also allows the company to escape paying its fair share in taxes on its high profits.

As Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) noted in a May report, Apple has managed to manipulate the international tax system using tax havens to such an extent that it paid almost nothing in income taxes on over $102 billion in foreign profits. While Apple’s abuses of the international tax system are particularly striking, CTJ also found that Apple is joined by companies like Dell, Microsoft and Qualcomm in shifting billions of dollars of profits to tax havens. CTJ was unable, however, to include many other companies engaging in these kinds of manipulations because the SEC is not using its authority to require companies to disclose all the information needed to make these determinations about every company. (Ironically, Apple has been more forthcoming than other notorious tax dodgers like Google and GE.) 

Rather than fixating on whether what Apple does is technically legal, the focus needs to be on how lawmakers can put an end to these elaborate tax dodges altogether. The most straightforward way to stop companies from dodging taxes would be to end deferral (PDF), which allows companies like Apple to indefinitely postpone paying taxes on offshore profits. In addition, lawmakers could follow the recommendations from the Senate investigation’s report (PDF) on Apple, which proposed tightening transfer pricing rules and reforming the “check-the-box” and “look-through” rules in the Internal Revenue Code.

There is mounting public outrage over the way corporations are avoiding U.S. taxes using offshore tax havens, and one move that would encourage Congress to do the right thing sooner would be for the SEC to tighten its disclosure requirements. The agency should ask for more detail on country-by-country income shifting, in particular, since that’s the direction the world is going anyway.  It’s time for the SEC to start exercising the authority it has, and for Congress to stop the revenue hemorrhage that is corporate tax avoidance.

Cartoon by Mike Smith, courtesy the Press Democrat.