May 4, 2017
The Apple corporation made waves earlier this week with its disclosure that its worldwide cash now exceeds $250 billion. Less noticed was a separate disclosure on Wednesday that the company’s offshore cash now exceeds $239 billion, meaning that more than 93 percent of the company’s cash is now held—at least on paper—abroad.
This represents an increase of $9.4 billion in the past three months, sending a clear signal that the company continues funneling money offshore to avoid U.S. taxes on a scale unmatched by any other U.S. company.
Taken on its own, holding cash abroad isn’t inherently bad behavior for a U.S. multinational engaged in business worldwide. But virtually everyone except Apple CEO Tim Cook now recognizes that in Apple’s case, the firm’s mountain of offshore cash reflects not the normal workings of a worldwide enterprise but a brazen effort to hide U.S. and European profits from the reach of the tax man. Back in 2013, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation (PSI) made a careful and convincing case that Apple had used loopholes in the tax laws to make legal, but ethically reprehensible, “cost-sharing agreements” with its insubstantial Irish subsidiaries that allowed the company to avoid paying tens of billions of dollars in income taxes. Then, last fall, the European Commission (EU) ruled that Apple has used its Irish subsidiary for an elaborate profit shifting scheme that was not only unethical but downright illegal.
But you don’t need a lengthy investigation to know that Apple is dodging taxes offshore: the company’s annual report tells us so. The disclosures in the company’s latest 10-K reveal that Apple has paid a total foreign tax rate of less than 4 percent on its offshore cash. This means its unpaid U.S. tax bill on this cash is a whopping $75 billion.
It’s in this context that policymakers should be evaluating the current plan—supported by Congressional leaders and President Donald Trump—to offer a “tax holiday” for companies holding profits indefinitely offshore. While hundreds of companies hold at least a chunk of the $2.6 trillion plus in U.S. corporate cash that now sits offshore, Apple’s share is by far the biggest, and Apple’s near-zero foreign taxes on these profits mean that Apple would likely be far and away the biggest beneficiary from a low-rate holiday on offshore profits. Which means that the biggest winner from the proposed tax holiday is a company that has been on an illicit tax holiday of its own making for years.
The question isn’t whether Apple has played U.S. policymakers like a piano so far: it has. CEO Tim Cook has used his considerable PR skills to portray Apple as a helpless victim of a rampant corporate tax law, while insisting that the findings of the PSI and the EU are “total political crap.” But he has offered no evidence to counter these tax avoidance claims.
The real question is whether Congress will continue to be duped. Instead of offering a new tax holiday, Congress could easily make Apple pay its taxes. It could require Apple (and other companies shifting their intangible profits from the U.S. to foreign tax havens, for that matter) to pay their fair share by ending deferral of tax on offshore profits. This would give an immediate shot in the arm to U.S. tax collections, and it would help counteract the corrosive public fear that tax rules are written for and by powerful corporate interests. If, instead, Congress instead follows President Trump’s recommendation and rewards Apple’s bad behavior with billions of dollars in new tax breaks, the public’s trust in our political leaders will be further eroded—and our leaders will deserve it.