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Apple's taxing problem

New York Times accuses Apple of tax avoidance on a large scale

San Francisco, California. Apple reported a 93 percent surge in second quarter earnings with a profit of $11.6 billion Photograph: Getty Images

The New York Times has published an in-depth look at Apple's tax arrangements, which finds that the computing company avoided paying around $2.4bn federal income tax in the US last year. The company paid, worldwide, tax of $3.3bn on profits of $34.2bn, although it does not break down what proportion of that tax is paid in what countries, nor does it detail which years the tax is due to – as Worstall points out, American corporation tax is usually deferred, so some of that tax will actually be on last year's profits rather than this years.

Tax avoidance stories always raise the question of definition. In this case, for instance, much of Apple's tax bill will be naturally reduced by the fact that the company sells 64 per cent of its products outside of its American home, and makes almost everything in China. Since it doesn't have to pay American tax on something made in China and sold in Ireland, it perfectly acceptably reduces its liability.

Yet as with all of these stories, that sort of reduction is not all that the company is doing. Many of their accounting structures seem to be put in place with the sole purpose of abusing the tax laws of multiple nations to pay as little as possible. Take, for example, the accounting technique improbably known as "double Irish with a Dutch sandwich". If Apple sells something in the UK, the profits are accountable to an Irish subsidiary, which then passes them on to a Dutch company taking advantage of European capital mobility, then back to a second Irish company which is technically owned by a company in a country with a 0 per cent corporation tax rate.

On paper, then, the majority of Apple's profits are made outside of the US. Despite the fact that the majority of sales are also made internationally, the NYT points out that:

The majority of Apple’s executives, product designers, marketers, employees, research and development, and retail stores are in the United States. Tax experts say it is therefore reasonable to expect that most of Apple’s profits would be American as well. The nation’s tax code is based on the concept that a company “earns” income where value is created, rather than where products are sold.

Even when profits make it into the United States, Apple still moves them in ways that seem wholly to do with paying lower taxes. The company makes all of its corporate investments through a subsidiary with the pun-tastic name Braeburn Capital, which is based in Reno, Nevada – 200 miles from Cupertino, and with a 0 per cent state corporation tax rather than California's 8.84 per cent.

Apple is far from alone in behaving like this, but the company has managed to retain a remarkably spotless image while growing to become the biggest in the world. They already suffered greatly from the perception that they were callously mistreating their workers in China, and this report could create a problem almost as large.