A highly taxing question


Apple, the world’s richest company has just agreed to pay $38 billion in tax to the US Treasury, the largest single tax remittance in history. The money is coming from the $270 billion overseas earnings the computer company currently holds offshore.

The repatriation and taxation of the corporate cash piles which many US firms are now keeping away from the US taxman, was one of the key planks of President Trump’s election campaign. Apple has felt able to make this move now because Trump has persuaded Congress to slash the rate of corporation tax from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Apple has also promised, through new investment and 20,000 extra jobs, to contribute $350 billion to the American economy in the next five years. Leaving aside the huge numbers involved here, it looks as if Apple is bowing to Trump’s demands, fessing up on the tax it owes and adopting the President’s “America First” demand, at the expense of further opportunities abroad. Except that this is not the case. It might have been expected that when Apple wrote the $38 billion check to the US taxman, its shares would have taken a dive. In fact they rose.

Apple is an example of the international corporation which operates globally in a wide range of tax regimes. It is an unfortunate truth that the great majority of the legislators who write tax codes in parliaments around the world are either lawyers or accountants. Tax laws, particularly those applying to corporate affairs, are generally complex, so complex indeed that it requires the services of large numbers of expensive accountants and lawyers to guide chief financial officers through the maze. Equally, governments should have their own highly-paid accountancy and legal professionals to apply the Byzantine tax codes. Any government that relies on what it imagines is a simple enforcement of the rules is living in La-La land. Corporations whose incomes dwarf those of many countries in the developing world have pockets sufficiently deep to fight the taxmen in the courts. More often than not, the tax authorities accept a settlement, generally substantially less than the sum originally demanded.

And the mega-rich companies of Silicon Valley have become experts at playing different tax regimes off against each other. Thus, though a product may be sold in one country by a local subsidiary, that subsidiary will pay the greater part of its profit to another subsidiary, typically in settlement of an invoice for royalties on intellectual property rights. That second subsidiary will be in a low tax location such as Ireland or Luxembourg.

The EU, concerned that most of its member countries are being robbed of tax income by this maneuver, has gone to war with the US technology giants. Low-corporation tax Ireland has been ordered to claim no less than $14 billion from Apple because Brussels says its generous tax regime was unfair, if not indeed fraudulent.

Multinational bosses say it is their duty to their shareholders to mitigate the tax their companies pay. They deny they are avoiding tax and insist that everything they do to cut their tax bills is legal. This may well be true. However, there is a very strong moral case that if a good is sold in a country, all the tax due should be paid in that country. Simple really.