Sound and fury: Why you shouldn’t pay attention to what companies say about their tax bills

Sound and fury: Why you shouldn’t pay attention to what companies say about their tax bills
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A flurry of announcements by corporate giants such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, American Express and others are informing their shareholders of expected “losses” in 2018 because of the new tax law’s requirement that they pay taxes on profits they’ve been holding offshore.

This is a laughable ruse. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will not increase taxes for corporations in 2018, nor will it increase corporate taxes in any other year. In fact, the new law will cut the nation’s already-low corporate tax collections by $650 billion over the next decade. Here’s a quick explainer on why the splashy short-term headlines of billion-dollar corporate tax payments conceal a long-term fiscal goldmine for America’s biggest corporations.

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Companies reporting short-term tax hits from the tax bill usually are doing it for one of two reasons. First, many companies have a big pile of offshore cash on which little or no tax has been paid to any country, and the new tax bill’s “deemed repatriation” provision requires them to pay at least something (but far below the 35 percent rate they avoided in the first place) to the United States on this cash.

 

So, Goldman Sachs, for example, amassed $31 billion offshore in recent years. Under the previous law, it would have paid a 35 percent tax rate on these profits, but only after repatriating those profits to the United States, a step it could defer indefinitely. The new law requires the company to pay taxes on these profits immediately, but at a rate of 15.5 percent or less.  From a fairness perspective, this should be seen as a massive tax giveaway rather than a tax hike, but financially it must be reported as a hike. This is the main driver of Goldman’s announcement, and will likely be the source of some big numbers for Apple, Google, Pfizer and other notorious offshore tax avoiders in the months to come.

A second source of these short-term tax “hits” comes from companies that have been storing up tax breaks they haven’t used yet — deferred tax assets, in the specialized jargon of the annual financial report. Through the third quarter of 2017, Citigroup had stored up a whopping $43 billion in tax breaks the company hadn’t gotten around to using yet. Now that the corporate rate is 21 percent, those deferred tax breaks are worth almost $20 billion less. Here as well, it’s hard to find reasons to shed tears for Citigroup: the company didn’t use all of its previously-generated tax breaks because it simply had too big a pile of them to use them all.

In each case, these tax “increases” are both illusory and very short-term. For example, it’s widely known that Apple has avoided $78 billion in U.S. taxes on its $260 billion in offshore profits. ITEP has calculated that the earnings hit to Apple from the tax bill’s deemed repatriation will be just $35 billion. This should be thought of as a $43 billion gift to the Cupertino, California-based computer giant, not a $35 billion penalty. Dozens of other known tax avoiders, from Microsoft to JP Morgan, just got handed the equivalent of a bouquet of flowers for their troubles, and likely will report this gift as a multibillion-dollar tax hit in their next financial reports.

And going forward, there’s no question of whether the glass is half empty or half full for corporate America. Companies that are able to successfully ship their profits offshore will face only a minimal tax bill under the new territorial tax system created by Congress last month, and slashing the statutory tax rate by almost 40 percent, from 35 to 21, will generate gigantic corporate tax reductions across the board. So even for companies that will see a short-term earnings hit from the deemed repatriation, there will be a long-term payoff that far outweighs the short-term pain.

Like the Congress that enacted President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE’s tax cut, corporate America faces a gigantic public relations challenge: they need to convince skeptical voters that the century’s biggest corporate tax giveaway will somehow benefit them. That’s why we’re seeing clumsy efforts by companies to shower bonuses on their workers and promises by utilities that their savings will get passed through to consumers. But the funhouse-mirror earnings adjustments reported by Goldman Sachs and other companies in the wake of the tax bill reflect generally accepted accounting principles rather than savvy marketing.

Matthew Gardner is a senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a national research organization that focuses on federal and state tax policy.