With Europe in disarray after Brexit, US lawmakers should fix the nation’s broken system for taxing foreign profits of US corporations.
In theory, foreign profits of US corporations are subject to a US tax of 35 percent. But in practice, these profits are not taxed at all by the United States — unless they are brought back to the states. Because of this rule, US multinationals have kept abroad over $2.5 trillion of their foreign profits.
This huge sum could be a growth engine for the American economy. The money could be used to build factories, modernize infrastructure, or pay dividends in the United States. Instead, it is deposited in bank accounts or invested in foreign countries.
We clearly need to reform this system, but responses in the past have not had much success.
Most Republicans argue for a territorial tax system in which foreign profits would be taxed only where they are earned. But this unfortunately won’t work. US multinationals have become very adept at shifting their earnings to tax havens, such as Bermuda, and other low-tax jurisdictions, such as Singapore.
Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is focusing on an important aspect of the agenda for corporate tax reform — — allowing U.S. corporations to receive a deduction for dividends paid to their shareholders. That deduction would eliminate double taxation of corporate profits distributed as dividends; instead, these profits would be taxed only to shareholders, not at both the shareholder and corporate levels.
Although Senator Hatch has not disclosed the details of his proposal, a corporate deduction for dividends paid has several advantages. But such a proposal would raise financial and political challenges that would have to be addressed.
I recently testified at a Ways and Means Committee hearing about tax reform. While there is broad agreement about the need to reduce the U.S. corporate tax rate, which is now highest among the world’s advanced economies, Committee members asked how they could explain this to constituents. Would this be perceived as fair?
When businesses choose their legal form for tax purposes in the United States they have several options. The simplest option is that the owner can operate the business without a separate legal entity in which case the income is taxed directly to the individual on their tax return. This is known as a sole proprietorship. An alternative is a pass-through entity, which is not taxed at the entity level (generally) but instead “flows through” income to the owner(s) who are taxed on their individual income tax returns. These entities include partnerships, LLCs, and S-corporations.
The other common type of organizational form is the C-corporation, which is subject to an entity level tax. In addition, when dividends are paid, the shareholders are taxed on the dividend income. Thus, the C-corporation form of business organization may result in double taxation. Almost all publicly traded businesses are taxed as C-corporations, while many small business are organized as pass-through entities.
The media spotlight has recently been on Apple Inc. AAPL +0.52% for shifting profits overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. In its international tax strategy, though, Apple is no different from other American technology companies, which (like Apple) began moving manufacturing overseas starting in the early 1980s.
Initially, U.S. technology firms that went abroad during this period were drawn by the lower labor, sourcing, and procurement costs. They also found they could eliminate exchange-rate risk by producing and selling in the same currency.
But these companies soon discovered another important advantage of being global: favorable taxation.