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Accounting and Tax Rules Encourage Companies to Stash Money Abroad

May 19, 2011

Major U.S. companies like Oracle and Amgen are stashing nearly $90 billion of their cash holdings offshore because of accounting and tax rules.

The IRS doesn’t tax the companies on their earnings overseas until the money is “repatriated” to this country, and U.S. GAAP allows companies not to report the deferred taxes on their foreign earnings, according to Reuters.

It’s difficult to know in many cases how much money is hidden offshore by companies. The information is typically buried in footnotes in their annual reports. Only 54 of the S&P 500 companies disclose how much of their cash holdings are sitting in foreign countries.

Congress has proposed legislation to give companies a “tax holiday” on repatriating their foreign profits (see Congressional Bill Would Provide Tax Holiday on Corporate Profits Repatriation). A coalition of multinational companies called Win America is also pushing for the tax holiday.

The White House and the Treasury Department are wary of the tax holiday, though, pointing out that the last time it was tried, back in 2004, it did not lead to anywhere near the number of jobs or the amount of corporate dividends promised, while billions of dollars in taxes were lost. However, it’s time for the accounting rules to be changed so companies are required to report quarterly on their cash holdings abroad to their investors, and maybe they will be forced to bring some of it home to create jobs and investment here.

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