A few weeks ago, I read a report that Microsoft borrowed over $2 billion in unsecured debt, even though the multinational corporation has an estimated $40 billion in cash and short-term securities. Why? Because of interest rates, and the complicated U.S. tax code that provides incentive for companies to keep cash out of the country. That’s some sound tax policy…
Microsoft declined to comment on whether its recent borrowing was partly driven by tax considerations. But, like many purportedly cash-rich companies, Microsoft can't bring home much of its cash without writing a fat check to the Internal Revenue Service.
Politicians have been carping about the more than $2 trillion in cash sitting idle in corporate coffers even as unemployment remains high. But much of that cash isn't in the U.S.; it is abroad. And it isn't likely to come back home unless U.S. tax laws change.
David Zion, a tax and accounting analyst at Credit Suisse, estimates that the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index have "north of $1 trillion" in undistributed foreign earnings, or profits that have been parked overseas to avoid U.S. tax. Not all of that is cash; some is in the form of inventories or other assets.
U.S. companies are taxed at up to 35% when they bring home the earnings generated through the operations of their overseas subsidiaries. They get a credit for any taxes paid to foreign governments—but, since the corporate-tax rate in the U.S. is one of the world's highest, most companies are in no rush to bring the money back onshore. By keeping those earnings abroad, U.S. companies can indefinitely defer their day of reckoning with the IRS.
That can put firms in the peculiar position of having tons of cash offshore that they might need but can't use at home without taking a tax hit.
The U.S. is the only major country that taxes foreign earnings of its own companies this way. American investors may not come out ahead either. In a 2007 survey of executives at more than 400 companies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Michelle Hanlon found that the desire to avoid the repatriation tax led to a variety of distortions, most of which end up making companies less efficient.