If there were a power ranking of U.S. companies, like the ones compiled by football writers for National Football League teams, Microsoft would surely be first or second to Google. But last week, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer came to Washington to announce what Microsoft would do if Obama’s multinational tax policy is enacted.
“It makes U.S. jobs more expensive,” Ballmer said, “We’re better off taking lots of people and moving them out of the U.S.” If Microsoft, perhaps our most competitive company, has to abandon the U.S. in order to continue to thrive, who exactly is going to stay?
At issue is Obama’s policy to end the deferral of multinational taxation.
The U.S. now has about the highest combined corporate tax rate, second only to Japan among industrialized countries. That rate is so high that U.S. firms have an enormous disadvantage versus competitors. The average corporate tax rate for the major developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2008 was about 27 percent, more than 10 percentage points lower than the U.S. rate.
U.S. firms have nonetheless prospered because our tax code allows a business to set up a subsidiary in a low-tax country. When that subsidiary earns profits, they are taxed at the rate of that country, and don’t face U.S. tax until the money is mailed home.
The economically illiterate partisan Democratic view is that this practice is unpatriotic and bleeds jobs from the U.S. The economic reality is that American companies use this approach to acquire market share overseas. The alternative is losing the business to foreign competitors.
Don’t just take my word for it. A recent paper by Harvard economists Mihir Desai and C. Fritz Foley and Berkeley economist James Hines and published in the distinguished American Economic Review, gathered data on American multinationals to explore the impact of foreign investments on domestic U.S. activity.
Encourage Overseas Sales
Their conclusion was striking. The authors found that “10 percent greater foreign capital investment is associated with 2.2 percent greater domestic investment, and that 10 percent greater foreign employee compensation is associated with 4 percent greater domestic employee compensation. Changes in foreign and domestic sales, assets, and numbers of employees are likewise positively associated; the evidence also indicates that greater foreign investment is associated with additional domestic exports and R&D spending.”
So when firms expand their operations abroad, taking advantage of the lower foreign tax rates, it helps their workers in the U.S. Higher sales abroad (surprise, surprise) are good for domestic workers.