An Easy Way to Squeeze a Lot of Taxes from Corporations That Try to Hide Their Profits Offshore

A simple way we can squeeze $75-$100 billion per year in taxes from corporations.

Photo Credit: Peshkova

Here is one thing Congress could do that would create more jobs, boost the economy and reduce both the budget deficit and the trade deficit. This one thing would not only provide a big boost now, but would provide an ongoing boost from now on. Congress should modify the “deferral” tax loophole that lets companies dodge their taxes by moving and keeping profits “out of the country.”

The top corporate tax rate is currently 35%. But corporations are allowed to “defer” paying taxes on profits earned outside of the country until they “repatriate” those profits, which means bringing the money back into the country. (Any taxes paid elsewhere are deducted from the amount owed.) There are solid reasons to allow corporations to do this. Simply put, they might need to put that money to good use, which will benefit the company, which in theory will later benefit our country.

But this tax deferral has turned into a huge loophole that is draining our country of jobs, tax revenue, investment, manufacturing infrastructure and other good things We the People are supposed to receive in return for allowing these corporations to operate. Companies not only are keeping profits out of the country, the loophole gives them an incentive to engage in schemes that shift more and more jobs, production and profit centers out of the country. (One well-known example: Apple transferred ownership of it’s “crown jewels” — “intellectual property” — to Ireland.)

A Ton Of Cash That We The People Could Really Put To Use

The amount now being held outside of the country is astounding. Some estimates say that it is as much as $1.5 to 2 trillion, or even more. If the full amount were brought back and the tax rate applied that would bring a $525-700 billion windfall that the government could use to hire people to get things done that really, really need to get done like modernizing our infrastructure, hiring teachers, building high-speed rail, retrofitting homes and buildings to be energy-efficient … so manythings… (Of course it would be less because of taxes paid elsewhere, etc., but we’re still talking hundreds of billions.)

And, of course, after that $1.5-2 trillion is brought back and the appropriate taxes are paid the rest would either be invested or distributed to shareholders — another nice boost to the economy.

Beyond the one-time windfall from bringing that cash back there would be two other major effects of changing this deferral loophole. The first, of course, is that tens of billions of revenue now withheld each year would be coming in to be taxed, thereby reducing the budget deficit. But perhaps more important, the incentive to move jobs, factories and profit centers (“crown jewels”) out of the country would be eliminated, so companies would keep factories and jobs here.

Why They Do It

The reason so much $$ is being kept away is that companies have good reason to believe that eventually they will be allowed to bring it back without paying the taxesthey owe. Congress made a huge mistake in 2004 and gave corporations a “tax repatriation holiday.” They allowed companies that were holding profits outside of the country to bring those profits back without paying all of the taxes due. This created the expectation that Congress will of course do this again (and again). So, not looking a gift horse in the mouth, companies started to find ways to increase their outside-the-country profits and reduce their inside-the-country profits. Jobs, factories, production, profit centers (desks, chairs, carpets…) and everything else that could be moved out of the country started to be … moved out of the country. And it gets worse every year.

Solution: Put A Surtax On Money Held Outside The Country

Some people say we should just repeal the rule that lets companies defer taxes due on profits earned outside of the country until they bring it home. But that undoes the benefits that were the original reason to allow deferral.

Here is a simple idea that could go a long way toward solving this problem. Don’t eliminate the deferral, tax it. As I said, there are good reasons to allow it in certain instances. Instead, put a surtax on profits held outside of the country. Just for illustration, suppose this surtax was 5%. This means that if a company decides to keep $1 billion of profits outside of the country, they would pay 5% of that, $50 million, each year they do this. This is not later used to reduce the amount of taxes due when they eventually bring the money home; when they finally “repatriate” the profits they would be still taxed at the same rate as now (up to 35% minus taxes paid elsewhere, etc.) But instead of gaining from keeping the money out of the country, it instead costs them 5% each year they keep it out.

Of course, this must be coupled with the end of any hope that Congress will eventually give in to hostage-taking and let companies bring profits back at some reduced rate. That was a mistake that has cost the country dearly in lost revenue, jobs, factories, profit centers, (desks, chairs, carpets…) and also cost the country money that should be either invested or distributed to shareholders.

If the companies decide to continue to hold that $1.5-2 trillion outside of the country this surtax would bring the government between $75 and $100 billion per year of additional tax revenue, and these companies would also eventually have to bring it back and pay the up-to-$700 billion due in taxes as well. I’d be happy with that, and so would the country.

Dave Johnson is the lead blogger at Seeing the Forest, a Fellow at Campaign for America's Future, a Senior Fellow at Renew California (and their Speak Out California site) and a Fellow at the Commonweal Institute.

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