How Big Corporations Avoid Tax

The Tax Free Tour

Film Review

VPRO-Marijee Meerman 2013

The Tax Free Tour is an hour long Dutch documentary (in English) about the highly specialized field of corporate tax avoidance. I found it astounding how many American corporations use overseas tax havens to avoid paying tax in the US. Some of the better known names include Walt Disney, Wells Fargo, Google, AT&T, Apple and even companies that promote themselves as socially responsible, like Starbucks and Amazon.

Apple, one of the worst offenders, pays only 1.9% of their annual income in corporate tax. As a US company headquartered in Silicon Valley, Apple should be liable to the standard 35% corporate tax rate. Their secret is diverting nearly all their income to a subsidiary in Ireland (which has one of the lowest corporate tax rates) – after first passing their royalty income through a Netherlands subsidiary (the Dutch charge virtually no tax on intellectual property revenue), a company listed in Virgin Islands and back to Ireland. In the accounting trade, this is known as a Double Irish with a Dutch sandwich.

The filmmakers calculate that profits offshored for tax avoidance purposes totaled more than $20 trillion in 2010. Approximately 100 of the world’s largest companies have subsidiaries in the Netherlands, owing to their low taxes on intellectual property royalties. Walmart has six Dutch companies, even though they don’t have a single Dutch store. Starbucks also diverts all their royalty income to the Netherlands. Because they have a trademark on “frappuccino,” they declare a certain percentage of the price as a “royalty” (and pay no tax on it).

My favorite part is near the end when a British Select Committee challenges a Starbucks executive on his claim that their British coffee houses have been running at a loss for fifteen years. After asking why they don’t close their British stores, she gets him to admit they avoid $1.6 million pounds in corporate taxes by diverting their UK income to the Netherlands. He won’t tell her how much tax they pay the Dutch government. Allegedly Starbucks and the Dutch government have a secret agreement not to disclose the amount. The committee chair sternly reminds the executive of all the free public services Starbucks receives in the UK, at the expense of other taxpayers.

Amazon avoids corporate tax by diverting a sizable portion of their revenue to Luxemburg. Google shelters their profits in Bermuda. Other favored corporate tax havens include Cyprus, the Cayman Islands, Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UAE and Kenya.

The irony is that most of this income can’t be transferred to shareholders. Paying it out as dividends would necessitate repatriating the revenue to the company’s home country – and paying the prevailing corporate rate. Thus much of this money is loaned (as treasury bonds) to deeply indebted western countries – who struggle to balance their books owing to the trillions of dollars lost from tax avoidance.

Crossposted at Daily Censored

6 thoughts on “How Big Corporations Avoid Tax

    • What really gets me is that we had all these great programs – including the space program, vocational rehabilitation, Comprehensive Training and Employment. community mental health, Aid to Dependent Children, etc – before corporations and rich people decided not to pay tax.

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  1. How many national debts could be retired if major corporations, execs and the social elite paid their fair share of taxes? To top it off, public funds are consistently diverted to private coffers. It’s a brave new world.

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    • During the 50s and 60s the ruling elite paid their fair share of tax to increase the overall “commonwealth”, mainly through education and public and child health. I have always felt that high taxes were largely responsible for the post-war economic boom.

      Beginning in the 1980s we shifted all our manufacturing overseas and quit adding new wealth to our economy. At present what passes for GDP is merely the transfer of money from poor people to rich people.

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  2. What’s interesting is the profound contrast in reactions between average folks when viewing a film like this and elected politicians. Regular folks become livid and call for heads to roll, while politicians have no issue with a very professional industry that has operated quite well thank you for decades, as those same twenty year politicians knew full well all about it – and did nothing.

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