Watch What I Do…..

This is my first official posting on Angry Bear. Let me start with a “thanks and delighted to be here.” I look forward to a productive interchange and expansion of the work I have been doing through ataxingmatter, my blog on tax and economic issues. I will continue to maintain the tax blog, and post here about once a week (usually with simultaneous posting on ataxingmatter).

There has been quite a bit said about Obama’s proposals for international taxation. If you read ataxingmatter, you know that I think the proposals to tighten up the way the rules work to prevent abuses are important starts in the right direction. Not surprisingly, multinational corporations have suggested that any change to the international regime that increases their taxes will make them even less competitive internationally (implying that they already have too little money to compete well) and ultimately, even quickly, lead to the demise of U.S. jobs. See, e.g., Donmoyer, Ballmer Says Tax Would Move Microsoft Jobs Offshore, Bloomberg.com, June 3, 2009.

One would think from such talk that US multinationals are just hanging on by the sheerest strings, unable to reduce costs further, leaving very small profits (if any) for their shareholders, and barely managing to pay their managers enough to keep decent talent aboard. But is that what Ballmer really means? Isn’t it more likely that it is a question of Microsoft hoping to retain all that money for its managers and owners rather than see a penny of it go to government purposes (like education, basic research)? How do we get any idea about what differences taxes make to companies when what managers say can’t really be trusted to shed much light on actual plans for the future?

Well, there is some real data on this issue that comes from the 2004 tax legislation–the corporate pay-back bill that was sold to the public with the same old claim that tax cuts would create millions of new jobs. The 2001-2003 tax bills cut revenues, but primarily lowered tax liabilities for individual taxpayers. (As I recall, Bush himself saw about a $37,000 tax cut from the 2001 legislation and Cheney more than double that.) Corporate lobbyists had agreed to this plan–ram the individual tax cuts through first and then pass a big bill fulfilling the multinationals’ wish list. The Bush administration and Congress came through in blazing colors for the corporate lobbyists, passing a host of corporate-friendly provisions under the guise of “job creation tax incentives for manufacturers, small businesses, and farmers.” (That’s the heading for Title II of the so-called American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. Even the names of the various bills ultimately passed in 2004 represent a veritable smorgasbord of propaganda–the “Homeland Investment Act”, the “American Jobs Creation Act”, and, the same year, the “Working Families Tax Relief Act”. )

The Jobs Act provisions included a host of bad policy choices all in the name of freeing up investment cash so that corporations could invest more in the good ol’ USA: even more section 179 expensing; even more accelerated depreciation for leaseholds, restaurants, aircraft, and syndication property; S corporation expansion; AMT breaks; more cross-crediting of foreign tax credits; more tax expenditures for the Big Oil, Big Timber and Big Pharm. And there was one other tax expenditure that was heavily lobbied for on behalf of multinational enterprises–a (purportedly one-time) provision for very low taxed repatriation of foreign earnings, in new section 965 of the Code. The MNEs claimed that the break would permit them to create thousands of new US jobs by reinvesting tax savings in their US businesses–investments that just couldn’t be managed under the constraints on the current tax burdens on repatriated cash. Repatriation, on the other hand, was supposed to lead to an increase in capital spending in the range of 2-3% over two years (see NBER paper, below, noting J.P. Morgan Securities’ estimate) and firms stated both confidentially and publicly that they planned to use repatriated funds for business purposes like acquisitions, capital spending, R&D, debt repayments rather than to pay out profits to shareholders.

The express purpose of the repatriation tax cut was to increase investment and viability of U.S. operations. Hiring new employees, conducting R&D, increasing capital investment in the US were all good uses, and Treasury guidelines indicated that use to pay executive compensation, dividends or stock redemptions would disqualify the repatriations from the tax benefit.

Did the corporate giants deliver? An NBER working paper by Dhammika Dharmapala, Fritz Foley and Kristin Forbes concludes that they did not. Watch What I Do, Not What I Say: The Unintended Consequences of the Homeland Investment Act, NBER Working Paper No. 15023, June 2009. Here’s the conclusion, as stated in the abstract.

Repatriations did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, employment or R&D—even for the firms that lobbied for the tax holiday stating these intentions and for firms that appeared to be financially constrained. Instead, a $1 increase in repatriations was associated with an increase of almost $1 in payouts to shareholders. These results suggest that the domestic operations of U.S. multinationals were not financially constrained and that these firms were reasonably well-governed.

Furthermore, money is fungible. The paper concludes that firms “were able to reallocate funds internally to bypass the publicly stated goals of the Act.” Id. at 5. So of the $299 billion that companies brought back from foreign subsidiaries (about 5 times the normally repatriated amount), about 92 percent of it went to shareholders in share buybacks and increased dividends. And interestingly, the firms that brought back the most money under the repatriation scheme were the firms that tended to “shield[] foreign income from U.S. taxation by using tax haven affiliates or holding companies.” The study also found that “[f]irms that increased parent equity provisions around the time of the tax holiday … had significantly higher levels of repatriations. This pattern suggests that the domestic operations of U.S. MNEs were not capital constrained and were instead providing liquidity to affiliates. These firms seem to have taken advantage of the HIA by ’roundtripping,’ that is, by replacing retained earnings that would be subject to high repatriation taxes if there were no tax holiday with new paid-in capital.” In fact, the paper includes a comparison of MNE and nonmultinationals on financial constraint indicators, showing that the MNEs are less constrained than nonmultinationals under each of the three important indicators.

At least one result was that good guys–the MNEs that didn’t use as many tax shelters to shield their foreign income and who regularly repatriated it and paid taxes on it–didn’t get nearly as much benefit from this bill as the bad guys–the MNEs that shielded their foreign income as much as they could and held it abroad until they could get this repatriation measure passed through their intensive lobbying pressure. And the bad guys didn’t do much of anything in the way of job creation, the political calling card they used to get their special tax break passed.

Seems to me we ought to at least keep this Jobs Act history in mind in the discussion of President Obama’s efforts to tighten international taxation rules and the already begun whining by MNEs that they are having such a difficult time competing that any further taxation will force them to move out of the US completely.

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