Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 7, 2005

Microsoft Slashes Tax Bill by Licensing IP to Irish and Nevada Subs

Interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal:  Irish Subsidiary Lets Microsoft Slash Taxes in U.S. and Europe:

A law firm's office on a quiet downtown street here houses an obscure subsidiary of Microsoft Corp. that helps the computer giant shave at least $500 million from its annual tax bill. The four-year-old subsidiary, Round Island One Ltd., has a thin roster of employees but controls more than $16 billion in Microsoft assets. Virtually unknown in Ireland, on paper it has quickly become one of the country's biggest companies, with gross profits of nearly $9 billion in 2004....

Giant U.S. companies whose products are heavily based on their innovations, such as technology and pharmaceutical firms, increasingly are setting up units in Ireland that route intellectual property and its financial fruits to the low-tax haven -- at the expense of the U.S. Treasury. Much of Round Island's income is licensing fees from copyrighted software code that originates in the U.S. Some of the rights to these lucrative assets end up in Ireland via complex accounting rules on intellectual property that the Treasury is now seeking to overhaul. The Internal Revenue Service said it is also looking closely at how companies account for such transactions....

Through a key holding, dubbed Flat Island Co., Round Island licenses rights to Microsoft software throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Thus, Microsoft routes the license sales through Ireland and Round Island pays a total of just under $17 million in taxes to about 20 other governments that represent more than 300 million people. Microsoft's effective world-wide tax rate plunged to 26% in its last fiscal year from 33% the year before. Nearly half of the drop was due to "foreign earnings taxed at lower rates," Microsoft told the Securities and Exchange Commission in an August filing. Microsoft leaves much of its profit in Ireland, including $4.1 billion in cash, avoiding U.S. corporate income taxes. But it still can count this profit in its earnings.

Round Island One is a key component in a drive by Microsoft to place its intellectual property and other assets into tax havens. In the past three years, Round Island has swallowed up other Microsoft units, from Israel to India, moving much of their tax liability to Ireland. Within the U.S., the rights to many of Microsoft's products and copyrights are managed by a subsidiary in Nevada, which, unlike the company's headquarters state of Washington, doesn't tax royalty income on intellectual property. The Nevada unit, Round Island LLC, is the corporate parent of Ireland's Round Island One.

The IRS is fighting intellectual-property migration in court, and the Treasury Department has issued a draft of new rules to limit it. Their efforts have done little to slow the trend. A Washington panel advising the White House on tax policy is now floating a possible new strategy: Simply eliminate the taxes on overseas corporate income that motivate firms to move their intellectual property and other assets offshore. Most major U.S. trading partners have already taken this step, giving their firms a competitive edge against American companies.

For a great discussion, see Larry Ribstein's Ideoblog.

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