Sunday, April 29, 2012
Apple, the world’s most profitable technology company, doesn’t design iPhones here. It doesn’t run AppleCare customer service from this city. And it doesn’t manufacture MacBooks or iPads anywhere nearby. Yet, with a handful of employees in a small office here in Reno, Apple has done something central to its corporate strategy: it has avoided millions of dollars in taxes in California and 20 other states.
Apple’s headquarters are in Cupertino, Calif. By putting an office in Reno, just 200 miles away, to collect and invest the company’s profits, Apple sidesteps state income taxes on some of those gains.
California’s corporate tax rate is 8.84%. Nevada’s? Zero.
Setting up an office in Reno is just one of many legal methods Apple uses to reduce its worldwide tax bill by billions of dollars each year. As it has in Nevada, Apple has created subsidiaries in low-tax places like Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands — some little more than a letterbox or an anonymous office — that help cut the taxes it pays around the world.
Almost every major corporation tries to minimize its taxes, of course. For Apple, the savings are especially alluring because the company’s profits are so high. Wall Street analysts predict Apple could earn up to $45.6 billion in its current fiscal year — which would be a record for any American business.
Apple serves as a window on how technology giants have taken advantage of tax codes written for an industrial age and ill suited to today’s digital economy. Some profits at companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft derive not from physical goods but from royalties on intellectual property, like the patents on software that makes devices work. Other times, the products themselves are digital, like downloaded songs. It is much easier for businesses with royalties and digital products to move profits to low-tax countries than it is, say, for grocery stores or automakers. A downloaded application, unlike a car, can be sold from anywhere.
The growing digital economy presents a conundrum for lawmakers overseeing corporate taxation: although technology is now one of the nation’s largest and most valued industries, many tech companies are among the least taxed, according to government and corporate data. Over the last two years, the 71 technology companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index — including Apple, Google, Yahoo and Dell — reported paying worldwide cash taxes at a rate that, on average, was a third less than other S.& P. companies’. (Cash taxes may include payments for multiple years.)
Even among tech companies, Apple’s rates are low. And while the company has remade industries, ignited economic growth and delighted customers, it has also devised corporate strategies that take advantage of gaps in the tax code, according to former executives who helped create those strategies.
Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies.
Without such tactics, Apple’s federal tax bill in the United States most likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year, according to a recent study by a former Treasury Department economist, Martin A. Sullivan. As it stands, the company paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent. (Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years.)
By comparison, Wal-Mart Wal-Mart last year paid worldwide cash taxes of $5.9 billion on its booked profits of $24.4 billion, a tax rate of 24 percent, which is about average for non-tech companies.
Apple’s domestic tax bill has piqued particular curiosity among corporate tax experts because although the company is based in the United States, its profits — on paper, at least — are largely foreign. While Apple contracts out much of the manufacturing and assembly of its products to other companies overseas, the majority of Apple’s executives, product designers, marketers, employees, research and development, and retail stores are in the United States. Tax experts say it is therefore reasonable to expect that most of Apple’s profits would be American as well. The nation’s tax code is based on the concept that a company “earns” income where value is created, rather than where products are sold.
However, Apple’s accountants have found legal ways to allocate about 70 percent of its profits overseas, where tax rates are often much lower, according to corporate filings. ...
Every second of every hour, millions of times each day, in living rooms and at cash registers, consumers click the “Buy” button on iTunes or hand over payment for an Apple product.
And with that, an international financial engine kicks into gear, moving money across continents in the blink of an eye. While Apple’s Reno office helps the company avoid state taxes, its international subsidiaries — particularly the company’s assignment of sales and patent royalties to other nations — help reduce taxes owed to the American and other governments.
(Hat Tip: Bob Kamman, Francine Lipman, Ann Murphy.)