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President Donald Trump said U.S. companies have anywhere from $4 trillion to $5 trillion in offshore accounts — a substantial increase from just last year.
Trump blamed the large sum of money on what he (inaccurately) considers the highest tax rate in the world in a July 25 Wall Street Journal interview obtained by Politico.
"We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world, essentially, you know, of the size," Trump said. "But we’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. We have — nobody knows what the number is. I mean, it used to be, when we talked during the debate, $2.5 trillion … I guess it’s $5 trillion now. Whatever it is, it’s a lot more. So we have anywhere from 4 (trillion) to 5 or even more trillions of dollars sitting offshore."
We’ve already rated Trump’s previous claims that we’re the highest-taxed nation in the world False.
This time we took a look at the amount of U.S. money sitting in offshore accounts. How much untaxed foreign revenue is out there, and could the figure have doubled since Trump cited the $2.5 trillion figure during the 2016 campaign?
The White House did not provide information for this fact-check.
We’ll start off by saying there is no public estimate on untaxed earnings overseas, as there is no law requiring they be reported.
Researchers can instead look at the indefinitely reinvested earnings on financial statements of publicly traded companies.
Indefinitely invested earnings aren’t making their way back to the United States anytime soon, which lets them off the hook for taxes and thus fatten after-tax profits. They might go to overseas factories, prospective acquisitions or other investments. Other companies may instead take on a deferred liability, which entails a future tax bill -- but while currently untaxed, most go undisclosed, so they aren’t counted in the researchers’ figures.
The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation can provide a fuller picture, because the committee has access to total untaxed foreign earnings. However, that information is only turned over to members of Congress.
The last time the committee made its findings public was in an August 2016 memo to two congressmen. In 2012, the committee said, $2.3 trillion of foreign earnings went untaxed.
Using predictive models, they estimated the number at $2.6 trillion for 2015.
The committee cited Audit Analytics, a third-party research service, to corroborate these findings. Audit Analytics found $2.4 trillion in indefinitely reinvested earnings. There was a $200 billion difference between the JCT’s estimate of untaxed foreign earnings and Audit Analytics’ calculation of indefinitely reinvested ones, which is what experts estimate the current discrepancy to be.
Audit Analytics ran its latest numbers for us. The company found $2.8 trillion of indefinitely reinvested earnings are sitting overseas, as of July 2017 — far short of what Trump described.
"It is possible that analysts are still working on entering information from small companies, but it would not change the number from the rounded-off figure of 2.8 trillion," Audit Analytics research director Don Whalen said.
We also turned to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which found that Fortune 500 companies — a slightly smaller pool — report $2.6 trillion offshore.
ITEP included total untaxed earnings, not just indefinitely reinvested ones, in their studies of Apple and Pfizer, as these companies provide a disclosure allowing for a fuller estimate of their untaxed offshore income and generate a significant amount of earnings through this mechanism.
"There is no reason to believe that this figure is substantially higher than what companies report and certainly not double the reported amount as President Donald Trump has contended without citing any source," said Taxation and Economic Policy senior policy analyst Richard Phillips.
So what else could cause the discrepancy?
Edward Kleinbard, the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at the USC's Gould School of Law, said that firms double down their offshore tax planning when they expect a tax holiday, which is when they get to bring back offshore earnings while paying little to no taxes on them.
"It’s plausible that people have accelerated their gamesmanship in the anticipation that in tax reform there will be another tax holiday," Kleinbard said. "But it’s not plausible to think the number could be as high as the 2 trillion-dollar difference between the data and what the president said."
Another possibility is for Trump to have counted tax inversions, which is when a small foreign company in a lower taxed country acquires a larger U.S. company and thus reduces their taxes. But that would entail a change in the definition of untaxed revenue. And even if we were to make that calculation, Kleinbard said the number wouldn’t expand by so much in such a short time span.
Trump described untaxed corporate earnings in overseas accounts as growing monumentally, from around $2.5 trillion to "anywhere from 4 (trillion) to 5 or even more trillions of dollars sitting offshore."
The highest reported number of offshore earnings is $2.8 trillion. That could be off by a couple hundred billion dollars due to undisclosed untaxed earnings. But experts agreed the discrepancy could not add up to Trump’s $4 trillion or $5 trillion estimate.
Business optimism and altered definitions of untaxed revenue couldn’t bridge that gap either.
We rate this statement False.
Politico, Full transcript: Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview, Aug. 1, 2017
Joint Committee on Taxation, Letter, Aug. 31, 2016
ITEP, Fortune 500 Companies Hold a Record $2.6 Trillion Offshore, March 28, 2017
Email interview with Richard Phillips, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy senior policy analyst, Aug. 3, 2017
Email interview with Alan Auerbach, director of Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at University of California, Berkeley, Aug. 3, 2017
Email interview with Don Whalen, director of research for Audit Analytics, Aug. 3, 2017
Email interview with Michael Nohrden, Ives Group chief operating officer, Aug. 2, 2017
Email interview with Thomas Barthold, Joint Committee on Taxation chief of staff, Aug. 2, 2017
Phone interview with Steven Rosenthal, senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, Aug. 3, 2017
Phone interview with Edward Kleinbard, Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at the USC's Gould School of Law, Aug. 3, 2017
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