WASHINGTON – America’s multinational corporations are growing grudgingly resigned to paying U.S. taxes on $2 trillion in profits they have stashed abroad.
“I think there is a recognition that part of any tax reform will be a taxation on the money that’s overseas,” said Mark Weinberger, the CEO of EY, one of the world’s largest professional services companies.
Weinberger serves as tax committee chairman of the Business Roundtable, which represents chief executives of some of the country’s biggest companies, including several in Minnesota. He briefed reporters last week on business tax reform.
Weinberger said the roundtable has not taken a position on White House and congressional proposals to tax once-sheltered foreign profits of U.S. corporations. But he said the CEOs he’s talked to understand they may have to make compromises to get changes in what most consider a badly broken corporate tax system.
“They’re saying, ‘We all know we have particular things we care about for our businesses,’ ” Weinberger explained. “ ‘But if we can get tax reform, we’re willing to put those on the table.’ ”
One of the main dishes — if not the principal entree — would be a one-time mandatory tax payment on foreign profits that have been sheltered from U.S. taxes. This tax avoidance strategy has grown increasingly popular among U.S. companies that do business outside the country. In addition to earning money in foreign countries and paying taxes in those countries, many corporations have found ways to book profits to foreign subsidiaries in countries that collect little or no corporate tax.
Taxing those foreign profits, President Obama’s 2016 budget envisions a $270 billion windfall that would become the main funding source for a six-year public works building plan. The plan also includes filling a hole in America’s Highway Trust Fund.
Other tax reform proposals, notably by Republicans in the House of Representatives, also make taxing foreign profits a centerpiece.
The levy could cover not only cash but foreign assets and investments on which the companies have never paid U.S. taxes.
The move affects $44 billion in foreign profits that Minnesota’s major companies have stashed abroad. Medtronic, with more than $20.5 billion, and 3M, with $11.2 billion, hold the bulk of the state’s tax-sheltered foreign profits, according to a Star Tribune examination of Securities and Exchange Commission filings. But St. Jude Medical, General Mills, Mosaic, Ecolab and Best Buy each have more than $1 billion in foreign profits on which they have “indefinitely deferred” U.S. taxes. Minnesota’s collective corporate tax liability under virtually any of the tax reform plans now under consideration will likely come to several billion dollars.
The companies affected have declined to say whether they agree with proposals to force them to pay U.S. taxes on foreign profits.
The payoff for doing so as part of business tax reform would be a lower U.S. corporate tax rate in the future and the immediate ability to spend money in the U.S. on such things as shareholder dividends, executive bonuses, research and development, capital improvements and job creation.
The U.S. now has the world’s highest corporate tax rate at 35 percent. Obama proposes to take the rate for U.S. earnings down to 28 percent for nonmanufacturing businesses and 25 percent for manufacturing businesses. The president also wants to end deferrals and impose an immediate minimum 19 percent tax on future foreign profits of U.S. companies.
The CEOs of the Business Roundtable want an overall 25 percent rate on future U.S. earnings and a “territorial” system for future foreign profits that only requires tax payments in the countries where money is earned.
The secret to business tax reform, Weinberger said, will be finding common ground between the Democratic president and business friendly Republicans who control the U.S. Senate and House.
Some financial experts think a tax on foreign profits will be part of that ground.
Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Republican Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have indicated that they don’t want to bring foreign profits home through a so-called “tax holiday,” said Robert Willens, one of the country’s leading corporate tax experts. Obama’s proposal “differs from a tax holiday,” Willens explained. It is mandatory, and it offers a set rate of 14 percent, adjusted down by a credit for foreign taxes already paid.
“It could be a starting point for negotiations,” Willens said.
Penn State University law professor Samuel Thompson, one of nation’s most respected tax policy experts, thinks Ryan would like to make a deal on business tax reform to secure his legacy in Congress.
“If Paul Ryan gets something like this done,” Thompson said, “it will be a feather in his cap.”
The last major business tax reform in the U.S. took place in 1986. It included a partnership between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. This time, Weinberger said, the parties are reversed in the White House and the House. But the support each branch will need to offer the other is the same. He predicted that reaching consensus on free trade agreements endorsed by both Obama and his usual foils in the House and Senate “is going to be a great canary in the coal mine as to whether they are going to agree to work together [on tax reform].”
However, Thompson and Weinberger each stressed that the deal has to be cut quickly.
“We’ve got a window here,” Weinberger noted. “But the window is only open for six or seven months. Then, we’re going to get to the  presidential election.”