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According to CNBC, Apple Computer has loaned the U.S. government over $52.6 billion, where if the company were a foreign country, it would rank 22nd among the major foreign holders of the publicly-held portion of the U.S. government’s total public debt outstanding.
That amount is just 0.2% of the entire public debt outstanding as of September 14, 2017, so it’s not like Apple can use that leverage to manipulate the U.S. government to its advantage, the way that Russia can do with Venezuela, but you would think that a profitable company like Apple would have better things to invest their money in than piles of U.S. government-issued Treasury securities.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson wonders the same thing:
There is an economic mystery I’ve been struggling to understand for quite some time, and I’m not the only one who’s confused: Among financial experts, it is often referred to as a conundrum, a paradox, a puzzle. The mystery is as follows: Collectively, American businesses currently have $1.9 trillion in cash, just sitting around. Not only is this state of affairs unparalleled in economic history, but we don’t even have much data to compare it with, because corporations have traditionally been borrowers, not savers. The notion that a corporation would hold on to so much of its profit seems economically absurd, especially now, when it is probably earning only about 2 percent interest by parking that money in United States Treasury bonds. These companies would be better off investing in anything — a product, a service, a corporate acquisition — that would make them more than 2 cents of profit on the dollar, a razor-thin margin by corporate standards. And yet they choose to keep the cash.
When companies do things that seem strange from a business sense, you can almost always correctly bet that the government is involved. Especially when you find out that Apple isn’t the only company engaging in this practice. Money‘s Andrew Sheridan reported on the phenomenon back in 2014:
Taxpayers are making millions of dollars in interest payments on U.S. Treasuries to an unlikely source — tech giants Apple, Microsoft, Google and Cisco.
Those tech companies have more than $100 billion in U.S. bonds, according to a report released Thursday by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit, privately funded reporting outfit in London. Due to U.S. tax laws, much of that cash is held in overseas subsidiaries — and it is likely that some of that cash is being used to purchase U.S. bonds.
The group used data from annual filings that companies are required to send the Securities and Exchange Commission. All told, Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG) and Cisco (CSCO) have $250 billion in cash abroad.
If these firms are buying U.S. debt with that money, then U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions in debt payments to the same U.S. companies they already buy billions of dollars from in iPads, software and routers.
“It means American taxpayers are effectively rewarding U.S.-based technology firms for avoiding taxes,” said Nick Mathiason, the author of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism report.
The most important reason that any corporate CFO worth his salt would do such a thing is because unnecessarily paying excessive amounts of corporate income tax to the U.S. government would harm their company’s competitive position in their markets, especially against non-U.S. competitors who are not subject to the same excessive tax burden. Then, as part of lawfully keeping the incomes that they earn overseas from being subjected to corporate tax rates that exceed much of those in the rest of the world, U.S. businesses with global reach are parking billions of their business revenues in one of the safest and least productive investments they can to avoid the U.S. government’s greedy tax collectors: U.S. Treasuries.
There is a way out of that kind of perverse, nonproductive investment for these businesses. Bloomberg‘s Claire Boston describes how the U.S.’ longstanding corporate income tax barrier might be chipped away:
Apple and other cash-rich companies are holding out, hoping that they may soon be able to bring their cash home at a lower tax rate. President Donald Trump’s tax plan includes a repatriation provision, though it didn’t specify a rate. He proposed a 10 percent levy when campaigning, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said the rate would be “very competitive.”…
Preparing for repatriation may mean cash-rich companies want to hold more of their funds in more liquid securities like U.S. Treasuries, said Benjamin Campbell, chief executive officer of Capital Advisors Group, which advises companies on cash and risk management.
“Companies have been looking at the repatriation issue and a portion of them are prepping for it,” Campbell said. “I think Treasuries would end up absorbing some of the supply.”
The latest rumors floating around Capitol Hill suggest that something between a 15% and a 25% maximum corporate income tax rate might become reality under a larger U.S. tax reform package, which would reduce the top corporate income tax rate from its excessive 39.6% level.
Part of what’s making this kind of consideration possible is the slowing of the rate of growth of the U.S. national debt, which in 2017, is growing at a rate that is about half of what it did during most of 2016. Since most U.S. politicians found that rate to be acceptable, corporate tax reform may become part of a deal that would increase the rate of growth of the U.S. national debt.
For the corporate income tax portion of such a deal, where corporate income parked overseas is concerned, it might be a net plus for the national debt. Right now, we have the situation where with a top corporate income tax rate of 39.6%, the U.S. government is actually collecting 0% of the billions of dollars earned by U.S. corporations overseas that it otherwise might. Worse, it is really in the hole because it is paying out interest to the firms that have bought up U.S. government-issued Treasury securities with a significant portion of the incomes they have kept outside of the United States to avoid excessive taxation.
But if the U.S. Congress permanently reduces the maximum corporate tax rate to a more internationally competitive level, they would no longer have such an extreme incentive to park their money so unproductively, where the U.S. government would benefit by seeing its corporate tax revenues from income earned outside of the U.S. rise above $0 from firms like Apple.