Apple pays non-US income taxes of just 2 per cent

The company is likely awaiting a "repatriation tax holiday".

Apple's annual tax return (pdf), filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, reveals that it paid just 2 per cent tax on "foreign" (non-US) earnings in 2012.

The news, highlighted by the Sunday Times' Simon Duke, can be found on page 61 of the document, which reveals that the company owed $1,203m taxes on foreign pretax earnings of $36.8bn, and deferred payment on $490m in order to realise a tax bill of $713m this year. Even if the deferred taxes were paid in full, the company would still be paying an effective rate of just over 3 per cent.

International sales accounted for 61 per cent of Apple's business in the last year, and so many are likely to cry foul at the low proportion of taxes which it pays in the areas in which it carries out the majority of its business.

Apple, like many multinational corporations, employs many strategies to legally lower its tax bill. The company bases its entire Europe, Middle East and Africa division in Cork, Ireland, a low-tax jurisdiction, and also operates its worldwide sales and distribution network from there. In addition, the company is famous for the large amount of non-repatriated cash it sits on.

This is money which it has earned on foreign sales, and wishes to bring back to the US, but has not yet done so. Like many companies, Apple is hoping for a "repatriation tax holiday", where it can move that income back to the US without having to pay income tax on it. The most recent holiday was in 2004, and saw companies that brought back profits taxed at 5 per cent, instead of 35 per cent. Until Apple decides what to do with those cash holdings, the company is likely to continue deferring tax owed on them.

In addition, the company doesn't have to pay any tax on foreign earnings which are reinvested overseas – it has spent over $5bn this way in the 2012 tax year.

While the 2 per cent paid on international profits may harm Apple's reputation outside the US, the company still pays an effective tax rate of over 25 per cent overall, and provides a breakdown of the deductions that reduce this from the 35 per cent baseline corporation tax rate of the US.

Updated with credit to Sunday Times.

Apple's Headquarters in Cupertino, California. Photograph: Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.