President Trump’s push to slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent down to 20 percent, and his ludicrous claim that doing so will give the average worker a $4,000 raise, has drawn a great deal of scrutiny—and rightfully so. It’s a trickle-down fabrication to build support for a bill that will further enrich CEOs and shareholders, and do nothing for ordinary Americans.
But the only colossal corporate giveaway in the plan includes more than the mere slashing of rates. Quietly, Republicans are also pushing a territorial taxation provision that would make it far easier for multinational corporations to avoid paying even a new 20 percent rate by providing further incentive to stash profits in offshore tax havens.
Currently, the federal government uses a “worldwide” taxation system for corporations, which taxes both domestic and foreign profits. This system is badly flawed because multinationals are able to indefinitely defer taxation on profits earned overseas and, through sophisticated accounting gimmicks, make it look on paper as if domestic profits are earned abroad.
This is why you hear about companies like Apple setting up subsidiaries in low-tax countries like Ireland to hold profits made, for instance, on patents, royalties, and other intellectual property and avoid paying taxes on them. The technology behemoth has parked more than $230 billion in profits abroad. Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, has 157 subsidiaries in tax havens holding nearly $200 billion in offshore profits.
According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 73 percent of Fortune 500 companies have subsidiaries in a low-tax country. All told, American corporations have steered more than $2.6 trillion in earnings into offshore tax havens.
The specter of corporate profit-shifting has become more pronounced in recent years. The scale of revenue loss to the United States federal government has increased five-fold over the last decade, and now costs an estimated $100 billion in annual tax revenue. In short, the way that the United States deals with international taxation is in desperate need of an overhaul.
For decades, the Republican Party’s preferred policy—in sync with that of most multinationals—has been to shift to a territorial system that does not tax foreign profits at all. Republicans claim that this will align the United States with the other developed countries that use a territorial system; that it’s merely about leveling the playing field for American companies.
But as many taxation experts point out, the GOP’s push for a territorial system would only accelerate corporate profit-shifting and could lead to a crisis of offshoring operations—putting more and more of the tax burden on average Americans and more and more pressure on government services.
That’s especially true if the system doesn’t include strong provisions to curb rampant profit-shifting and to prevent American companies from packing up for tax havens. Republicans have made vague promises that they will prevent an erosion of the tax base and will set up guardrails that ensure that companies will not be able to easily move abroad. But so far it’s unclear precisely how they would make that happen. The only clear policy guardrail Republicans have included in the plan is a minimum tax that ostensibly would serve as a backstop, requiring companies to pay up if their tax rate falls below a given number. But policymakers have yet to disclose what that rate would be, giving experts reason to believe it won’t have much teeth. On top of that, Republicans are pushing for a minimum tax that applies to a company’s aggregate earnings worldwide, as opposed to on a per-country basis.
Kimberly Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College, warns that this will allow companies to easily game the system by earning profits in low-tax havens as well as high-tax countries, and thus more easily meet the minimum tax standard without actually stopping the tax avoidance. “You can basically use the flows of income in both the high- and low-tax countries to offset each other in order to avoid incurring the minimum tax,” Clausing told Law360. “So, it creates all these sort of pretty easy profit-shifting opportunities between foreign affiliates. … The minimum rate becomes kind of a maximum rate from the perspective of multinational tax planners.”
Critics are skeptical, too, that Republicans would even want to construct strong guardrails.
“The thing to understand is those guardrails put in place probably won’t be very strong given the GOP’s views on corporate taxation generally,” says Alexandra Thornton, senior director for tax policy at the Center for American Progress. “But it’s also very hard to come up with those kinds of guardrails. Money is fungible and it’s impossible for the IRS to keep up with what corporations do on their books. A lot this is behind the corporate veil.”
As of now, the GOP’s territorial plan would only serve to accelerate profit shifting abroad and could further prompt businesses to begin moving tangible assets—operations and jobs—to other nations. “There will be companies who haven’t moved before who will have more incentive to do so in the future,” says Reuven Avi-Yonah, a professor of international tax law at the University of Michigan Law School.
And yet, top Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and organizations like the Heritage Foundation claim that a territorial system will spark economic growth and increase wages for workers. Additionally, Ryan says that this will open the door to allow companies to bring back the trillions of dollars that have become “stranded” abroad, and use that money to invest in research, development, and jobs in the United States. The last time Republicans did this was during the George W. Bush administration in 2004—and it failed miserably. Despite passing a tax holiday bill that ostensibly required companies to invest in the United States, most of the foreign profits that were brought home were funneled into share buybacks and dividend payouts, not investment in jobs, new facilities, or new equipment.
While President Trump constantly harps about putting America first, he’s pitching a tax plan that would embolden American multinational companies to avoid domestic taxation and move operations abroad.
There are easier ways for the United States to curb corporate tax avoidance. The most direct is to simply end the deferral of corporations’ foreign profits and tax them annually like domestic profits. This would reduce the incentive to stash profits abroad. We could then use that new revenue to lower statutory rates a little bit and close lucrative loopholes.
That’s if the Republican Party was actually interested in comprehensive corporate tax reform. Trump could also simply reverse his delay of an Obama regulation that would limit corporate profit-shifting by cracking down on a common tax avoidance strategy called earnings-strippings. (Don’t hold your breath on that, though.)
Republicans are banking on the fact that international taxation is a complicated and esoteric issue that isn’t as easy to understand as, say, slashing the corporate tax rate. But its impact would be just as, if not more, consequential.