Economy: Are Multinationals Dodging Taxes?

Like it or not, ours is a world of multinational companies. Almost all of America's brand-name firms (Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Caterpillar) are multinationals, and the process works both ways. In 2006, the U.S. operations of foreign firms employed 5.3 million workers. Fiat's looming takeover of Chrysler reminds us again that much business is transnational.

For most people, the multinational company is a troubling concept. Loyalty matters. We like to think that "our companies" serve the broad national interest rather than just scouring the world for the cheapest labor, the laxest regulations and the lowest taxes. And the tax issue is especially vexing: How should multinationals be taxed on the profits they make outside their home countries?

Listen to President Obama, and the status quo seems a cesspool. Pervasive "loopholes" engineered by "well-connected lobbyists" allow U.S. multinationals to skirt American taxes and outsource jobs to low-tax countries. So the president proposes plugging loopholes. Some jobs will return to the United States, he said, and U.S. tax coffers will grow by $210 billion over the next decade.

Sounds great—and that's how the story played. "Obama Targets Overseas Tax Dodge," headlined The Post. But the reality is murkier; the president's accusatory rhetoric perpetuates many myths.

Reality: Just the opposite. Most countries don't tax the foreign profits of their multinational firms at all. Take a Swiss multinational with operations in South Korea. It pays a 27.5 percent Korean corporate tax on its profits and can bring home the rest tax-free. By contrast, a U.S. firm in Korea pays the Korean tax and, if it returns the profits to the United States, faces the 35 percent U.S. corporate tax rate. American companies can defer the U.S. tax by keeping the profits abroad (naturally, many do), and when repatriated, companies get a credit for foreign taxes paid. In this case, they'd pay the difference between the Korean rate (27.5 percent) and the U.S. rate (35 percent).

Reality: Not so. Sure, many U.S. firms have shut American factories and opened plants elsewhere. But most overseas investments by U.S. multinationals serve local markets. Only 10 percent of their foreign output is exported back to the United States, says Harvard economist Fritz Foley. When Wal-Mart opens a store in China, it doesn't close one in California. On balance, all the extra foreign sales create U.S. jobs for management, research and development (almost 90 percent of American multinationals' R&D occurs in the United States), and the export of components. A study by Foley and economists Mihir Desai of Harvard and James Hines of the University of Michigan estimates that for every 10 percent increase in U.S. multinationals' overseas payrolls, their American payrolls increase almost 4 percent.

Reality: Dream on. The estimated $210 billion revenue gain over 10 years—money already included in Obama's budget—represents only six-tenths of 1 percent of the decade's tax revenue of $32 trillion, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office. Worse, the CBO reckons that Obama's endless deficits over the decade will total a gut-wrenching $9.3 trillion.

Whether Obama's proposals would create any jobs in the United States is an open question. In highly technical ways, Obama would increase the taxes on the foreign profits of U.S. multinationals by limiting the use of today's deferral and foreign tax credit. Taxing overseas investment more heavily, the theory goes, would favor investment in the United States.

But many experts believe his proposals would actually destroy U.S. jobs. Being more heavily taxed, American multinational firms would have more trouble competing with European and Asian rivals. Some U.S. foreign operations might be sold to tax-advantaged foreign firms. Either way, supporting operations in the United States would suffer. "You lose some of those good management and professional jobs in places like Chicago and New York," says Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute.

Including state taxes, America's top corporate tax rate exceeds 39 percent; among wealthy nations, only Japan's is higher (slightly). However, the effective U.S. tax rate is reduced by preferences—mostly domestic, not foreign—that also make the system complex and expensive. As Hufbauer suggests, Obama would have been better advised to cut the top rate and pay for it by simultaneously ending many preferences. That would lower compliance costs and involve fewer distortions. But this sort of proposal would have been harder to sell. Obama sacrificed substance for grandstanding.

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