The current corporate tax structure creates a perverse incentive for American multi-national corporations to keep nearly $2 trillion outside the U.S. due in large part to our 39.1 percent combined tax rate. American companies doing business abroad pay taxes to the nation in which income is earned but then face a second layer of taxes by the U.S. when the remaining money is brought home, with a credit to offset the overseas taxes plus any legal deductions. This sort of tax system leaves little to the imagination as to why companies don't return as much of their profits to America for reinvestment, which could fuel tremendous job growth and economic activity.
Another byproduct of high taxes is that companies are incentivized to leave the U.S. and move abroad. As of August 2012, an analysis of corporate statements and required filings found that since 2009 at least 10 publicly traded American companies had moved abroad or announced intentions of doing so. This compares with only a handful of companies between 2004 and 2008.
The United Kingdom has been dealing with this problem for decades, due in no small part to their proximity to one low-tax jurisdiction in particular. Ireland's tax system, including the low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent, has been used to bait many British companies and entrepreneurs.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in 2011 that the U.K. needed to implement a territorial system because, "Other countries are quite deliberately making their tax systems more competitive, and attracting multinational companies away from the U.K." Furthermore, the U.K. announced in December 2012 that it would further reduce its main corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 24 percent by next year. The result: A plan designed to keep British companies in the U.K. is also attracting American firms.
Great Britain is one of the largest business hubs on earth, and the rationale for modernizing their corporate tax code takes center stage at an April 26 congressional briefing with U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and other tax experts, including representation from the U.K. The British are among our staunchest allies, but they are also business competitors and their message is clear; nations seeking a competitive advantage in the global trade arena ignore corporate tax reform at their peril. Whether this message will be heard and heeded remains to be seen.
We can take a lesson from nations that are moving toward a territorial tax system and lower corporate tax rates. U.S. tax policy should be even handed and avoid placing government in the position of picking winners and losers. Equitable tax policy treats all business income equally, notwithstanding the industry, how a company is structured, or whether it is headquartered in the U.S. or offshore. It's also important that corporate tax reform be revenue neutral, which can be achieved by balancing lower rates with the elimination of certain tax deductions that companies currently exploit.
Increasingly, nations around the world are learning that corporate tax policy is a valuable and reliable way of stimulating economic and job growth. Over time, enough nations have followed this course and in doing so, the U.S. is now Number 1 in high corporate taxes. It's a status Congress should be ready to shed, the sooner the better. And unless Congress acts, it's an unwanted status that will continue to plague our weakened economy.
Galvin is immediate past chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers' Tax Committee and retired vice chairman of Emerson Electric.