Within the context of the presidential race, the revelation that Donald Trump may not have paid any federal income tax in 18 years is certainly a big deal. It speaks to his attitude about business (anything legal is okay). It speaks to his self-regard (avoiding taxes "makes me smart," he said in the first debate). And, it speaks to his hypocrisy: Trump regularly flames others for not paying their share.
But, to people who follow such things, Trump's tax arrangements aren't surprising or unusual. Evading taxes is standard procedure among major businesses these days, as a new report shows. And, comparatively speaking, $916 million over 18 years isn't particularly sizable. Some companies avoid as much in a single year. Corporate America out-Trumps even Donald Trump.
The report, from Citizens for Tax Justice, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, shows that 73% of the Fortune 500 now book U.S.-earned profits to tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. These 367 companies maintain more than 10,000 subsidiaries in low or no-tax locales, often hiding the fact from their own investors. Apple alone has stashed $214.9 billion offshore, for example.
In total, the report says, Fortune 500 companies have accumulated $2.5 trillion in offshore havens for tax purposes. If they were to pay the full rate of 35% on that money, the federal government could expect to see more than $700 billion in additional revenue (for comparison, the U.S. defense budget is about $585 billion). The researchers arrive at that figure by subtracting what a sample of companies pay to foreign governments—an average of 6.2%—from the full U.S. rate.
Using the same rate for individual companies, the report estimates that Apple, the biggest avoider, would owe $65.4 billion in U.S. taxes if it repatriated its profits. Citigroup, which has 140 subsidiaries in offshore tax havens, would owe $12.7 billion on $45.2 billion. And Nike would owe $3.6 billion on $10.7 billion. Instead, keeping the money abroad allows the companies to report higher profits to shareholders and keep their own borrowing rates low. Companies like Apple continue to issue debt despite having plenty of cash on hand.
The groups argue for law changes so companies don't flout the system so regularly. Lawmakers could end a rule on "deferral" that allows corporations to book profits in foreign subsidies indefinitely, they say. Market regulators could force companies to disclose all their offshore subsidiaries, improving transparency. And we could stop companies from shifting intellectual property to tax havens (patents, trademarks, licenses) and paying royalties to that subsidiary as a way of booking profits offshore. Or, at the very least, lawmakers could offer a "tax holiday" on offshore profits as a way of clawing back some lost revenue. President Obama proposed a 14% rate in 2015.
"By failing to take action, the default is that our elected officials tacitly approve the fact that when corporations don’t pay what they owe, ordinary Americans inevitably must make up the difference," the report says. "Every dollar in taxes that corporations avoid must be balanced by higher taxes on individuals, cuts to public investments and services, and increased federal debt."
If you're upset about Trump's personal tax avoidance, you should be more upset by corporate tax avoidance. At the moment, we're all paying more because of it.
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