In a conference call with investors Monday, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer argued that the company could not repatriate its $65 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) in earnings and investments held overseas because the corporate income tax constituted too large a “disincentive” to do so. This was apparently the latest in a lobbying effort by Apple to have Congress institute a repatriation “tax holiday” similar to one passed in 2004, that saw hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign-held corporate earnings brought back to the country under preferential tax rates.
Calls for another corporate tax holiday have been growing in the past six months, with various pieces of legislation introduced in the House in 2011 that would reward companies that repatriate profits with a low tax rates. These calls for a repatriation holiday are often bipartisan (House legislation introduced in the summer of 2011, for example, is co-sponsored by Utah Democrat Jim Matheson and Texas Republican Kevin Brady).
It is important to note that a repatriation holiday solves no economic problem at all … unless one defines Apple investors’ obligation to pay taxes as a problem.
The best economic case made in favor of such a holiday is that by encouraging U.S. corporations to return their overseas holding to the domestic economy, this will greatly increase the supply of investment capital that can be mobilized to help businesses increase capacity.
But, as we’ve noted over and over again, U.S. businesses today still are not using anywhere near the full amount of capacity they already have. And access to cheap credit for corporations is historically easy. And business investment is the one area of the economy that is actually growing historically fast. And corporations are already sitting on historically large amounts of investable capital. In short, there is no plausible reason at all to think that repatriating foreign earnings provides any relief to the actual economic problems facing the U.S.
What a holiday would do, especially given the 2004 holiday, is convince U.S. corporations that profits earned abroad will always be given an opportunity to be brought home at very low tax rates in the future. And this will provide further incentives to firms to increase the share of their profits that are earned abroad, which means increasing the share of jobs and capacity that is held abroad.
Apple (and other multinationals) already has the chance to defer taxation on profits held overseas – this is a substantial tax benefit already. There is no public policy case at all for giving them and other multinationals another holiday from corporate taxes. Luckily, the Obama administration seems unswayed so far by Apple’s complaints.