Apple's un-American stance on taxes

Why the company's refusal to repatriate overseas income is wrongheaded.

By InvestorPlace Apr 13, 2012 12:08PM

By Will Ashworth


By now, investors are familiar with Apple's decision to start paying a quarterly dividend of $2.65 a share and repurchasing $10 billion in stock. The move was generally well received by investors, but I believe it's a drop in the bucket for a company that generated $38 billion in cash in the past year alone.


Apple's (AAPL) argument against shelling out more is the tax liability it faces if it repatriates any of the $65 billion in cash it now holds overseas. CFO Peter Oppenheimer said this about its dilemma: "We think the current tax laws provide a considerable economic disincentive to U.S. companies that might otherwise repatriate the substantial amount of foreign cash they have."


Boo hoo!


U.S. shareholders should be embarrassed by this crass attempt by Apple and other multinationals to bully the federal government into giving it a "get out of jail free" card.


Apple chooses to do business overseas with the explicit understanding that any earnings taxed there get an equivalent credit deferring taxes on those earnings until they're repatriated in the future, at a maximum corporate tax rate of 35%. Apple management has decided to avoid paying those taxes -- to the detriment of both everyday Americans and its own shareholders, many of whom are the richest 1% in the country.


I fail to see how this is anything but un-American.


Corporate taxes have existed at the federal level since 1909. America's maximum corporate tax rate was higher than 35% for 46 consecutive years, from 1942 until 1988, two years after the implementation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. In 1950, corporate taxes represented 6% of the U.S. GDP. By 2011, they were just 2.7% of GDP. It might not seem like a big difference, but corporate taxes in the 1950s accounted for almost one-third of federal revenue compared to 7.9% today.


Is it any wonder that baby boomers grew up in a postwar America brimming with economic confidence, thanks in part to a federal government that could meet its obligations and pay its bills? Might I remind Mr. Oppenheimer that in 1950, the top corporate tax rate was 42%, while the top individual tax rate was a whopping 84.4% over $400,000. Americans, especially those in the C-Suite, seem to have forgotten what sacrifice really means.


Have a look inside Apple's most recent 10-K, and you'll see that its effective tax rate in 2011 was 24.2% (page 63). However, that's not what it actually paid. In reality, it cut a check for $3.3 billion (page 46), or 9.6% of its pretax income of $34.2 billion, considerably lower than the 15% it paid in 2010.


Gallingly, Apple wants to pay even less. As part of the WinAmerica lobbying group, it's pressing President Obama to provide a tax holiday so that it and others, like Microsoft (MSFT), can repatriate $1.4 trillion in cash sitting in overseas bank accounts at a one-time tax rate of 5.25%. WinAmerica argues that the $73.5 billion in taxes paid as a result of the tax holiday along with the repatriated cash would result in the creation of 2.5 million jobs. (Microsoft owns and publishes Top Stocks, an MSN Money site.)


How dumb do you think Obama is? The government tried this tactic back in 2004, and it was a colossal bust. Most of the repatriated cash back then went to dividends and share repurchases. The same thing will happen if corporations are allowed to do so in 2012. Apple shareholders will insist on it.


Columbia University's Earth Institute published a report for the U.N. recently detailing the state of happiness in the world. Denmark was the happiest country, with Finland a close second. The U.S. came in 11th. Denmark's corporate tax rate is a flat 25%, while the highest individual tax rate is 51.5% for a combined 76.5%. That's 650 basis points higher than in the U.S. Yet the Danes are apparently much happier.


Ireland was No. 10 on the list, and its combined corporate/individual tax rate is 53.5% -- but its corporate rate is just 12.5%. Have you looked at the state of its economy lately? Something tells me that the Laffer Curve isn't working out so well for the Irish. Obviously, the solution is somewhere between Ireland and Denmark.


Many big corporations support the idea of a territorial taxation system in which the U.S. doesn't attempt to tax foreign earnings and allows them to move cash wherever they like. Unfortunately, this would seriously reduce the amount of corporate taxes collected.


A better idea, according to Ed Kleinbard, a professor at USC's Gould School of Law, is to tax U.S. corporations on their worldwide income when they earn it. Calling it a "business enterprise income tax," it would also provide corporations with tax deductions paid to any foreign nation, but they would not be able to defer those taxes indefinitely. Pay-as-you-go taxation would level the playing field between companies like Apple with big overseas operations and those operating solely in the U.S.


While it's easy to argue that the 35% corporate tax rate is too high, Apple and the rest of the WinAmerica lobby need to humble themselves a little bit and remember who it is that gave them their start. Asking for such a serious tax break on its hoard of cash isn't just un-American, it's downright wrong. 


Meanwhile, investors in Apple -- and three other high-flying blue chips -- should be asking where their stocks are headed next.


As of this writing, Will Ashworth did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.


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10Comments
Apr 13, 2012 1:11PM
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Let me get this. The article states that Apple should be happy to pay it's taxes. How many of the people that think we should pay more in taxes use tax consultants so that they can pay the least amount of taxes?
Apr 13, 2012 1:39PM
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...and what good does this article do for America? What sacrifice have you made recently?  I get so tired of wasting my time reading articles like this.  You are just reprinting other people’s ideas with your own personal rant woven in. You make a living critizing others, brilliant. What's really funny is that you are the epitome of the new American, complain about others but offer no real solution and make money from it. Your just like the Kardashian's, you don't really do anything but make your living doing it...now that's American.  You are pathetic, just like this rant...

Apr 13, 2012 3:09PM
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Paying taxes is un-American.  It supports the size and scope of the Federal government.  The Bill of Rights was put in place specifically to limit the size and scope of the Federal government.  The collection of taxes started the huge growth in this beast, while deficit spending "leveraged" it further. 
Apr 13, 2012 5:38PM
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You appear to have a way with words. Now you need to think a little before you use your writing skils.

First, what is the history of corporate taxes in the rest of the world over the past 50 years? How does that compare to the U.S.?

Is the world different today than it was 50 years ago relative to where companies manufacture their goods and sell them today?

Wake up...... People and Companies move to where they can get the best deal, prices, taxes etc..

We have fostered this behavior and we now have to live with it.

Do a little work figuring out what is behind the numbers before you publish something that may be accurate but misleading.

We need companies to stay and grow in the USA. We need the money and we need the job growth.

We MUST grow our way out of the hole we have dug. We CAN NOT tax our way out of this hole. I repeat WE CAN NOT TAX OUR WAY OUT OF THIS HOLE.

I may not be very smart but even I can figure that out.

Reports like yours do not help anything. You have the skills to do a better job.

You have the ability to influence a lot of people. Make sure you fully understand what you are talking about and the potential implications of what you suggest before you publish something.

We have far too many people suggesting half baked ideas.  Try a little harder I am sure you can do better if you do your research.

 

 

Apr 13, 2012 1:02PM
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I agree with Apple. F the government, there is no reason they should get such a high tax rate on the money and then steal even more when they tax the dividends.
Apr 13, 2012 3:51PM
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How does Apple using the tax code as written make them un-American?  The code allows them to hold it off shore so if the US wants them to bring it back make it reasonable.  Second why does it not list all of the other un-American companies holding their funds off shore.  If the number is 1.5 trillion Apples piece would be less than 5%.
Apr 13, 2012 4:25PM
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Perhaps Denmark and Finland's population is happy with how the government is spending the taxes.  Why point to Irelands economy when ours is not doing so well?  And a lot of people do think Obama is dum.


Apr 13, 2012 4:13PM
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What is Un-american is the high taxes!   ........... To do this they must quit giving money to people that do not earn a living..................

Obviously you didn't read the article or you would have learned that our Federal tax rate for both corporations and individuals are at historic lows!!  And if companies would quit sending jobs overseas maybe Americans would have jobs so they don't need a hand out.  But yes, I do agree that our budget need a major haircut.

Apr 13, 2012 4:17PM
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When they are comparing tax rates, did they include property tax rates?
They are much higher in USA than in Europe.

You got to live under a roof, even if you rent your landlord pays taxes

 

Apr 13, 2012 3:53PM
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What is Un-american is the high taxes! If the federal government would quit giving money away this would not be a problem. That just makes good business sense on Apple's part. They like other company's with money in Europe , are awaiting the Fed's to come to their sense and lower taxes. To do this they must  quit giving money to people that do not earn a living and trying to buy our love in rough nations.  
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