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Corporations dodge $718 billion in taxes through offshore tax havens

Matthew Gardner

European regulators’ recent finding that Apple avoided billions of dollars in taxes by stashing its profits in Ireland, a known tax haven, put the tech giant in an unwelcome spotlight. But Apple’s tax dodging is just the tip of a huge iceberg of offshore corporate tax avoidance.

According to a new report, Offshore Shell Games 2016, by CTJ, ITEP & USPIRG , American firms are avoiding up to $718 billion in U.S. taxes on $2.5 trillion in profits held offshore. These jaw-dropping numbers will keep getting bigger until we fix the corporate tax system.

The report found that nearly three-quarters of America’s biggest companies avoid U.S. taxes by setting up subsidiaries in tax haven nations — countries where corporate tax rates are minimal or nonexistent, financial transparency murky and tax-law enforcement lax. The use of tax haven subsidiaries to avoid U.S. taxes is highly concentrated among a small group of mega-corporations: just 30 firms are responsible for two-thirds of all that offshore loot.

Apple is the leader, holding nearly $215 billion offshore, on which it owes more than $65 billion in U.S. taxes. Drug giant Pfizer isn’t far behind, with nearly $200 billion spread among a dizzying array of 181 tax-haven subsidiaries. This might explain why Pfizer claims it hasn’t turned a profit in the U.S. in almost a decade.

The United States taxes all the worldwide profits of American corporations every year. But a loophole called “deferral” allows firms to indefinitely delay paying taxes on earnings booked offshore. If they book these profits to subsidiaries in tax haven countries, they pay little or nothing to any country. The report estimates that big American corporations have paid worldwide taxes on their trillions of dollars of offshore profits at a rate of just 6.2 percent–less than the rate that average middle-class families pay in U.S. taxes each year.

Much of the corporate profit booked in offshore tax havens isn’t earned there. Corporations use accounting tricks to artificially shift earnings from the U.S. (and other large nations with big markets and effective tax systems) to small-nation tax havens. For instance, a pharmaceutical firm can assign a drug patent to a subsidiary in a tax haven, then pay steep royalties to the subsidiary to manufacture and sell the drug in this country.

The result? U.S. expenses are artificially inflated, depressing domestic profits and therefore taxes, while profits stack up in offshore havens where they’re taxed little if at all.

Pretty much the only business tax-dodging American corporations are doing in tax havens is the business of tax avoidance. One way we know this is that they claim to generate profits at levels that dwarf local economies. The $104 billion in profits U.S. companies say they’ve earned in Bermuda, for instance, is 19 times the entire economic output of that island nation.

Another phony angle on corporate-profit offshoring is that a lot of those earnings officially booked overseas are really right here in America. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that found 93 percent of Microsoft’s supposedly “offshore” profits (now totaling $124 billion) are really invested domestically.

When multinational corporations avoid taxes by using offshore havens, the rest of us pick up the tab through higher taxes on working people and domestic businesses, reduced public services or higher public debt.

Ending deferral — demanding corporations pay all their taxes every year like everyone else — is the best way to end offshore tax dodging. This simple reform should apply both to future profits and the $2.5 trillion now sitting overseas.

Unfortunately, some politicians want to richly reward big corporations for effectively hiding their profits in offshore tax havens with a steep cut in the U.S. taxes they owe on that existing earnings pile. Donald Trump would tax these profits at just 10 percent, handing tax-dodging corporations a half-trillion-dollar tax cut. Some in Congress want to reduce the rate even more.

Whether to give such massive and unwarranted tax discounts to some of the nation’s most profitable corporations is sure to be the centerpiece of a Congressional struggle over corporate tax reform expected next year.

Big companies and their wealthy investors don’t need another handout. Corporations with profits stashed in offshore tax havens should pay what they owe, now and in the future.

Matthew Gardner is the Executive Director of Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Please note this op-ed previously appeared in The Hill.