Silicon Valley firms avoid billions in U.S. taxes

February 13, 2013 7:20:02 PM PST
Google, Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Cisco. They are some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley, but they're also among the companies who have avoided paying billions of dollars in federal and state taxes.

Matt Drange is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest non-profit investigative reporting organization in the country. He pored over documents submitted by to the Securities and Exchange Commission by the 50 largest tech companies in Silicon Valley.

"We looked at the 50 biggest companies and found that in fact, almost all of them are doing the same thing," Drange said.

Forty-seven of those companies reported having assets overseas that were "permanently reinvested" -- a designation that allows them to legally avoid reporting the money as taxable U.S. income.

"A lot of this money that these companies say is overseas is actually not -- but they invest it wherever they want -- so a lot of times the company will choose U.S. investments, such as U.S. Treasury bonds and things like that," Drange said.

Those are just some of the ways companies defer payment of federal and state taxes indefinitely.

Five companies accounted for more than two-thirds of the $225 billion in accumulated foreign earnings last year.

The top U.S. tax rate is 35 percent. But a review of the last three years of financial records by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that some Silicon Valley companies are paying much lower global tax rates.

Apple reported $40.4 billion in holdings overseas, paying an effective global tax rate of 12.6 percent. Ebay had $10 billion overseas, paying just 15.3 percent. Google reported $24.8 billion with a 17.6 percent tax rate. Yahoo had $3.2 billion overseas, paying just 17.9 percent. And Cisco, which reported $41.3 billion overseas, had an effective tax rate of 20.9 percent.

Most the companies declined to comment on their offshore holdings or the amount of taxes they paid. Those that did said they are following the law.

Economist estimate the federal government loses $90 billion in tax revenue a year. That would be enough to fund California public schools and universities for more than two years, or cover 206 days of military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is isn't the first time multinational companies have been the target of criticism for sheltering money overseas.

"The bottom line of our investigation is that some multinationals use our current tax system to engage in gimmicks to avoid paying taxes that they owe," Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said during hearings Congress held in September.

The hearings looked at how Silicon Valley companies have become so efficient at avoiding taxes by transferring money among foreign subsidiaries. Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft testified they are among the companies operating legally.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says Congress is to blame. It created a patchwork of tax laws that allow corporations to reinvest oversees.

"So they spend a lot of money with accountants and auditing firms to take advantage of every loophole that we have created," he said at the hearings.

There have been no changes in the law so far. In fact, many of Silicon Valley's biggest firms will benefit from a two-year extension of a tax provision included in the fiscal cliff deal reached by Congress in January that will cost the government more than $1.5 billion.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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