PGL at Econospeak notes:
Darla Cameron and Jia Lynn Yang want to report on how US multinationals are shifting profits to foreign tax havens but their key statistic is the ratio of US tax expenses to worldwide profits:
A Washington Post analysis of data compiled by Capital IQ found that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, companies in the current Dow 30 routinely cited U.S. federal tax expenses that were up to half of their worldwide profits. Now, most are reporting less than half that amount. The reason? The slow but steady transformation of the American multinational after years of globalization. Companies now enjoy an unprecedented ability to move their capital around the world, and the corporate tax code has not kept up with the changes. Across industries, virtually every major U.S. firm has seen the rate of its tax contributions plummet, at least according to publicly available financial statements.
Let’s consider two very different situations. Company A has mostly US activities but has shifted its intangible assets to a Cayman affiliate. If half of its profits are attributable to intangible assets, then not only has its US tax expenses dropped below 20%, its effective tax rate is also below 20%. Company B does not create much in the way of intangible profits but has half of its activity in high tax Europe. Its effective tax rate – calculated as worldwide tax obligations relative to worldwide income – is still high even though its US taxes are likely less than 20% of worldwide profits. Company A is involved with the kind of transfer pricing manipulation that the press should be complaining about. Company B is not. But this statistic cannot distinguish between the two very different situations.
(Dan here: Examples of special treaties, also needing more than a look, and such have been noted at Angry Bear here).