U.S. Companies Are Stashing $2.1 Trillion Overseas to Avoid Taxes
Eight of the biggest U.S. technology companies added a combined $69 billion to their stockpiled offshore profits over the past year, even as some corporations in other industries felt pressure to bring cash back home.
Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc., Google Inc. and five other tech firms now account for more than a fifth of the $2.10 trillion in profits that U.S. companies are holding overseas, according to a Bloomberg News review of the securities filings of 304 corporations. The total amount held outside the U.S. by the companies was up 8 percent from the previous year, though 58 companies reported smaller stockpiles.
The money pileup, reflecting companies’ incentives to park profits in low-tax countries, has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama and U.S. lawmakers, who see a chance to tap the funds for spending programs and to revamp the tax code. That effort is stalled in Washington, and there are few signs that tech companies will bring the profits back to the U.S. until Congress gives them an incentive or a mandate.
“It just makes no sense to repatriate, pay a substantial tax on it,” said Joseph Kennedy, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy-research group whose board of directors includes executives from Microsoft and Oracle Corp. “Computing and IT companies especially have a lot of flexibility in where they declare their profits.”
Microsoft, Apple and Google each boosted their accumulated foreign profits by more than 20 percent over the year, the largest increases by any of the 34 companies with at least $16 billion outside the U.S. International Business Machines Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle, Qualcomm Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. each added at least $4 billion.
The profits added by the eight technology companies accounted for 45 percent of the net gain in overseas funds among the corporations surveyed. At the same time, firms in some other industries felt enough pressure to meet domestic needs that they chose to take the tax hit by bringing money home.
Duke Energy Corp., based in Charlotte, North Carolina, took a $373 million tax charge against earnings in February as part of a plan to get access to $2.7 billion in accumulated foreign profits. Stryker Corp., a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based maker of medical devices, is planning to repatriate $2 billion this year.
Apache Corp., a Houston-based oil and gas company, had $17 billion indefinitely reinvested overseas at the end of 2013. Now, it has none.
“The company made the decision to utilize international cash to pay down U.S. debt and grow its North American operations,” Castlen Kennedy, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
General Electric Co. topped the list for the fifth straight year. The company now has $119 billion outside the U.S., an increase of 8 percent from the end of 2013 and a 27 percent gain since 2010.
By contrast, Microsoft has more than tripled its offshore holdings since 2010. Apple, which counts only part of its non-U.S. holdings as indefinitely held offshore, increased that portion to $69.7 billion from $12.3 billion in 2010. Cisco now has $52.7 billion outside the U.S., up 10 percent since 2013.
Microsoft referred back to 2012 Senate testimony by Bill Sample, its vice president for worldwide tax. Sample said then that the Redmond, Washington-based company is “fundamentally a global business” and that U.S. law creates a disincentive for U.S. investment.
Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Cupertino, California-based Apple, declined an interview request.
Google referred to a December 2013 letter that the Mountain View, California, company sent to the Securities and Exchange Commission. It said Google needs $20 billion to $30 billion for future acquisitions outside the U.S., $12 billion to $14 billion for foreign subsidiaries’ share of developing intellectual property and $2 billion to $4 billion for capital expenditures.
John Chambers, Cisco’s chief executive officer, said on Bloomberg TV on Feb. 20 that his company is investing in India, Israel and France in the absence of U.S. tax law changes.
“I’d prefer to have the vast majority of my employees here,” Chambers said. “And our tax policy is causing me to make decisions that I don’t think is in the interest of our country, or even in our shareholders, long term.”
The Bloomberg analysis covers 304 large U.S.-based companies that are required to report annually how much they hold outside the country in profits, which isn’t the same thing as cash.