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Companies shelter billions outside the US

They are all companies that call Minnesota home: Medtronic, 3M, St Jude Medical, General Mills and Ecolab. But they also all hold 90 per cent or more of their cash outside the United States.

Amid a growing national political debate over corporate tax avoidance, some of the Twin Cities' biggest corporate citizens are accumulating giant stockpiles of money beyond America's borders and, therefore, beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Service.

Hoarding foreign cash has become an increasingly popular - and completely legal - shelter for many of the US' major corporations as they lobby for reforms that will lower their tax bills. But the strategy keeps billions of dollars on the sidelines that could otherwise go toward US capital investments, jobs, and research and development. It also reduces federal revenue by billions of dollars.

"It is a disaster for the US economy," said Samuel Thompson, a Penn State law professor whose research includes corporate taxes. "If you decrease investment, you decrease the rate of growth and employment in the US."

The strategy is relatively new. Barely a decade ago, Medtronic held half of its cash in the United States. As recently as 2009, 3M held more than half of its cash domestically.

But in recent years companies have adopted strategies to expose as little of their profit as possible to a US tax rate that is the highest in the developed world, at 35 per cent.

A spokesman for Ecolab, a maker of cleaning and sanitising chemicals and oil industry additives, said his company and others are simply responding to incentives the government has created.

"The US tax system ... encourages companies to keep cash overseas to avoid this additional layer of US tax," spokesman Roman Blahoski said in an email.

Many companies and their trade groups are pushing Congress to change the tax laws, or at least declare a tax holiday like one in 2004 that temporarily cut the tax rate on foreign profits.

At that time, US companies brought back $US312 billion at a US tax rate of just 5.25 per cent, a small fraction of what they otherwise would have owed. This was supposed to be a one-time deal, but some saw a precedent.

"It's a game of chicken," said Harvard Law School professor Stephen Shay, an authority on corporations' tax avoidance. "They're just waiting to have Congress give them a tax break."

Some companies don't want to wait.

University of Southern California law professor Edward Kleinbard, a former chief of Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation, says hoarded foreign profits are driving corporate America's recent push for so-called inversions. In such deals, companies move their legal residences to low-tax foreign countries while keeping most operations in the US.

A record 10 companies have moved in the past year to reincorporate in foreign countries with lower tax rates, and one of the biggest such deals is Medtronic's attempt to buy Dublin-based Covidien for $US43 billion. Medtronic says the deal would strengthen it strategically, but it also offers significant tax benefits.

Major US companies have accumulated more than $US2 trillion in tax-deferred foreign profits, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a research group that advocates for closing loopholes. The amount grew by $US454 billion from 2010 to 2013.

Minnesota-based Cargill Inc, one of the world's largest private companies, says roughly 60 per cent of its revenue comes from outside the US. Based on reported net earnings of $US2.31 billion in 2013, foreign income for that year would account for nearly $US1.4 billion of that total.

Cargill, which is not required to publicly disclose many financial details, declined to say how much it holds in tax-deferred foreign profits and how much of that amount is cash.

"We generally reinvest our foreign earnings to support our growth abroad," spokesman Tim Loesch said in an email. "For example, we build grain elevators and food processing plants. US tax on such earnings is deferred. However, foreign tax is not. We pay substantial foreign income taxes."

Amid the proliferation of inversion deals, the Treasury Department recently announced new rules that will no longer let corporations avoid US taxes by using internal loans. That was part of Medtronic's original plan for the Covidien deal.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in September said corporations had been able to "avoid their civic responsibilities while continuing to benefit from everything that makes America the best place in the world to do business. This may be legal, but it is wrong."

Medtronic could have avoided $US3.5 billion to $US4.2 billion in US taxes by loaning its $US14 billion in foreign cash to itself in the Covidien deal, but turned to outside lenders in response to the new Treasury rules. The company has argued that reincorporating outside the US will make it easier to invest in US operations in the future.

Many companies and some elected officials see a need to more dramatically overhaul the corporate tax system.

Democrat Representative Keith Ellison thinks Congress should end tax deferral on currently stashed profits as a starting point for reform.

Deferral "doesn't help the economy," Ellison said. And it doesn't make sense when the country is "struggling to pay for programs like Head Start and food stamps".