In nine months, American companies have repatriated 210 billion dollars of foreign earnings. And, according to estimates, that sum could reach 350 billion between now and year-end. The companies are taking advantage of an amendment voted in on the sly by Congress in 2004, as part of a law on the creation of American jobs. It allows companies to transfer earnings realized abroad and reinvest practically free of taxes.
When the text was adopted, right in the middle of the Presidential campaign, it was a question of proving the administration’s desire to combat outsourcing. President George Bush had signed it on October 22, ten days before the election. The law allows American companies to pay 5.25% taxes on profits repatriated to the United States instead of a theoretical 35%. This gift is only available for a year.
Two Unexpected Effects
It’s not certain that the hundreds of billions of repatriated dollars will create many jobs. On the other hand, they have already had two unexpected effects: they are feeding the wave of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street and are supporting the American currency. The 350 billion dollars represent over half the American trade deficit and facilitate its financing.
According to a study by the International Strategy & Investment Group firm, 91 big groups have indicated that they want to take advantage of the law. At first, they waited to know how the Treasury Department was going to apply the law, but for the last several weeks, announcements have multiplied. Most of these companies have taken great care not to specify how they will use this money, contenting themselves with announcements that they will pay down their debt and invest.
Bank J.P. Morgan, one of the law’s “promoters,” deems that the repatriation of profits will allow 1% extra growth in the American economy during the next two years. It estimates that around 120 billion dollars will be used to finance new investments and create 500,000 jobs. For the moment, no project of that kind has been announced. On the contrary, Colgate-Palmolive indicated in July that it wanted to repatriate 800 million dollars and, at the same time, close a third of its factories and eliminate 4,450 jobs.
To enjoy the tax advantage, the companies must supply the Treasury Department with a proposed utilization of the funds approved by their Boards of Directors. The law does not allow them to use the repatriated monies for stock repurchases, dividend payments, or management remuneration. But since there is no a posteriori control, the companies do whatever they want.
For the moment, the healthcare, high technology, and consumer goods sectors are the ones that have made the most use of the new text. Companies like Pfizer, Merck and Hewlett-Packard – which have announced their intention to repatriate respectively 36.9, 15, and 14.5 billion dollars. Other well-known names include Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Intel, Dell, PepsiCo.
American companies pay very little taxes. According to the latest figures available, revenues from taxes on corporate earnings represented barely 7.4% of Federal tax revenues in 2003, compared to a peak of 52% in 1952. Between 1995 and 2003, they went down by 16%. In theory, corporations are taxed at 35% of their earnings. In reality, by taking advantage of very complex legislation that contains many hidden loopholes, of a system of favorable provisions and tax havens, they pay much less.
According to a study by the General Accounting Office – Congress’s investigatory arm – 45% of companies with more than 250 million dollars of capital did not pay a cent in taxes between 1996 and 2000. During the same period, zccording to Citizens for Tax Justice, the ten companies with the highest profits (Microsoft, General Electric, IBM, General Motors … ) paid on average only 8.9% of earnings in taxes.
Eric Leser, Le Monde / Truthout