Microsoft and HP in the Hot Seat as Senate Investigates Offshore Profit Shifting


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A hearing on offshore profit shifting last week exposed aggressive tax planning strategies employed by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard (HP) and illustrated the critical need for more disclosure.

On September 20, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on “Offshore Profit Shifting and the U.S. Tax Code.” Witnesses from academia, the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. multinational corporations, international tax and accounting firms and the nonprofit Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) answered questions from the Senators about how tax and accounting rules allow U.S. multinationals to shift profits offshore using dubious transactions and complicated corporate structures.

The committee looked at two case studies investigated by the committee staff. In the Microsoft case, the committee investigation found that 55 percent of the company’s profits were “booked” (claimed for accounting purposes) in three offshore tax haven subsidiaries whose employees account for only two percent of its global workforce. Microsoft did that by selling intellectual property rights in products developed in the U.S. (and subsidized by the research tax credit) to offshore tax haven subsidiaries, then creating transactions to shift related profits there.

Hewlett-Packard used a loophole in the regulations to use offshore cash to pay for its U.S. operations without paying any U.S. tax on the repatriated income.  Rather than having offshore subsidiaries pay taxable dividends to the U.S. parent company, HP had two subsidiaries alternately loan funds to the parent in back-to-back-to-back-to-back 45-day loans. In the first three quarters of 2010, there was never a day that HP did not have an outstanding loan of $6 to $9 billion from one of its foreign subsidiaries.

In the tax footnote to their public financial statements, companies disclose the amount of their foreign subsidiaries’ earnings which are “indefinitely reinvested.” They do not record U.S. tax expense on these profits, ostensibly because they don’t plan to bring them back to the U.S. anytime soon. But they must disclose the total amount of their unrepatriated profits and estimate the U.S. tax that would be due if the earnings were repatriated.

The FASB representative, in a conversation with CTJ Senior Counsel Rebecca Wilkins after the hearing, noted that the accounting standards require disclosure. If companies do have a reasonable estimate and are not disclosing the amounts, that would be an “audit failure” by the accounting firm auditing the financial statements and subject to possible disciplinary action by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (established by Congress in 2002).

Most companies have not disclosed the potential U.S. taxes they would owe, but they must know it’s enough that they don’t want to repatriate the earnings and pay it. Chances are, they know those amounts down to the dollar.

It's outrageous that many of the companies who are lobbying hardest for a repatriation holiday won’t tell Congress whether these foreign earnings are sitting in a tax haven right now or how much U.S. tax they would owe on them. Lawmakers should demand to know.

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