America's most successful multinationals make great products and offer superior services. But they have another, less enviable quality in common -- they have become world leaders in tax avoidance. General Electric's global effective tax rate for 2010 was 7.4%. Pfizer's was 11.9%; Cisco came in at 17.5%. The nominal U.S. corporate tax rate is 35%.
Each company has its own tax story, but all -- like other multinationals -- have for years relied heavily on low-taxed foreign income to drive down their worldwide tax obligations, including those of their U.S. businesses.
American multinationals claim they are taxed on their worldwide income, but in reality the "active" income they earn through foreign subsidiaries is not taxed in this country until the cash is repatriated. In addition, financial accounting practices (the lens through which we view these firms because their tax returns are not public) permit a company not to book any U.S. tax liability on foreign earnings if the firm states that the income is "indefinitely invested" abroad.
General Electric has $94 billion in indefinitely reinvested earnings. The total for corporate America is more than $1 trillion.
If the story was simply that U.S. firms have successfully expanded into international markets and are paying taxes abroad at lower rates, one could argue that there is no U.S. tax mischief afoot. But these are not the facts.
Tax collectors in the U.S. and in high-tax foreign countries are the direct victims of the tax avoidance, but we all suffer from the resulting budget deficits and distorted investment decisions that firms make as a result of their ability to generate what I call "stateless income" -- income derived from selling goods and services in a high-tax country but that, through internal tax legerdemain, surfaces in a low-taxed affiliate. ...
It's true that the U.S. corporate tax rate, at 35%, is too high relative to its economic peers, about 28% on average. (Click here for data on the 31 member states of the OECD; the 28% figure is an unweighted average of the larger OECD members. Click here for the "BRICs" and other non-OECD countries.) But the solution is not to reward U.S. multinationals for concocting and implementing worldwide tax-minimization schemes.
The only feasible solution is to lower the U.S. rate to a level comparable with global norms and to pay for the reduction in part by introducing worldwide tax consolidation for U.S. firms, just as they today consolidate their worldwide operations for financial accounting purposes.