Apple issued $12 billion of U.S. debt in April, which gave the company a domestic cash infusion that allowed it to keep more earnings overseas. Last month PfizerPFE attempted to acquire AstraZeneca, a transaction that would have made Pfizer a subsidiary of the U.K.-based company. These were useful examples in the taxation classes I teach at MIT’s business school, but the real-world implications of these decisions are troubling. Even worse, legislators have responded with proposals that seek to prevent companies from escaping the U.S. tax system.
The U.S. corporate statutory tax rate is one of the highest in the world at 35%. In addition, the U.S. has a world-wide tax system under which profits earned abroad face U.S. taxation when brought back to America. The other G-7 countries, however, all have some form of a territorial tax system that imposes little or no tax on repatriated earnings.
To compete with foreign-based companies that have lower tax burdens, U.S. corporations have developed do-it-yourself territorial tax strategies. They accumulate foreign earnings rather than repatriate the earnings and pay the U.S. taxes. This lowers a company’s tax burden, but it imposes other costs.
For example, U.S. corporations hold more than $2 trillion in unremitted foreign earnings, a substantial portion of which is in cash. This is cash that currently can’t be reinvested in the U.S. or given to shareholders. As a consequence, companies are borrowing more in the U.S. to fund domestic operations and pay dividends. Another potential effect is that companies invest the earnings in foreign locations.
Since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007-08, the administration and the Federal Reserve have implemented policies explicitly designed to spur investment, grow GDP, and reduce unemployment. These actions haven’t worked — certainly not as expected.
The weapons of choice to boost the U.S. economy have been low interest rates, deficit spending, and increased money supply through the Fed’s balance-sheet expansion to over $3 trillion. Yet almost five years later, GDP growth has been anemic at below 2% and at times negative, and aggregate domestic investment is about where it was in 2004, and considerably below the 2006-2007 level.
Optimists believe it’s still too early and that we have spent too little. More of the same would eventually produce good fortune — at least, that’s the hope.
S.P. Kothari is deputy dean and professor of accounting at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author, with Jonathan Lewellen and Jerold Warner, of ”The Behavior of Aggregate Corporate Investment”.
Recently MIT Sloan alumna Judy Lewent was inducted into the Financial Executives International Hall of Fame. A former executive vice president and chief financial officer of Merck, Lewent was recognized for her performance, leadership and integrity as a financial professional who has made significant contributions to the betterment of her organization and profession. The following is an excerpt of her remarks at the event:
“It is a momentous time for finance. As the global economy teeters on the brink, much of the world stands by holding its collective breath. This is, no doubt, a time of great anxiety. That anxiety is shared, not just by 50% of the public or 75% or even 99%. Everyone shares it.
My latest paper* focuses on the difficulties that rating agencies face in setting a credit score that accurately reflects the credit quality of a borrower, but also takes into account the effect that score will have on the borrower’s credit quality in the future. When a rating agency cuts a given company’s credit rating, investor confidence in that company’s ability to meet its debt obligations is undermined, making it very difficult for the company to raise cash. The downgrade often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In my paper I talk about the ideal accurate credit rating environment. It’s important to note that there may be several possible ratings that are accurate for a particular firm or country at any point in time, but some of these ratings lead to more distress than others. I believe rating agencies ought to be careful to select the best rating: one that provides an accurate portrayal of the company’s credit worthiness, but also takes into account the continued existence of the company in question. These ratings – where the agencies have a small bias towards the ultimate survival of the companies they evaluate – allow the companies to borrow money at a lower interest rate and therefore improve their chances of withstanding any financial shocks that may arise.
As a former pension consultant-turned MIT Sloan professor, I get asked to speak at my fair share of pension conferences. I recently spoke at a symposium for trustees of Taft-Hartley funds, which are pension funds for unionized workers jointly trusteed by union representatives and management. After my talk, something unexpected happened: the audience gave me a hearty round of applause. This was unusual because often when I speak at these events, it seems people want to throw things at me.
Allow me to explain. I worked for over a decade in the pensions industry, and during that time and since, I’ve observed intense politicization around whether public (state and local) pension plans are adequately funded, and especially whether the actuarial rules for determining how much funding is necessary are up to the task. On one side are plan sponsors and actuaries who say that, based on traditional actuarial methods, the funds are in decent shape; and on the other side are economists (and a few actuaries) who contend that traditional actuarial methods understate and obfuscate the pension commitments state and local governments have made, and that the plans are in far worse shape than is generally acknowledged.