Tax Havens Blunt Impact of Corporate Tax Cut, Economists Say

Posted June 10, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT

The new corporate tax cuts are unlikely to stimulate the level of job creation and wage growth that the Trump administration has promised, a trio of prominent economists has concluded, because high tax rates were not pushing much investment out of the United States in the first place.

Instead, the researchers conclude, multinational corporations based in the United States and other advanced economies have sheltered nearly 40 percent of their profits in tax havens like Bermuda, depriving their domestic governments of tax revenues and enriching wealthy shareholders. That number suggests a jarringly large amount of what appears, to policymakers, to be investment pushed abroad by high tax rates is instead an accounting trick — so-called paper profits — which tax cuts will not reverse.

“This idea that if you cut taxes, you’ll attract a lot of physical capital, a lot of investment to the United States, I don’t think is supported by the evidence,” said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the paper’s authors. “Paper profits — that doesn’t boost wages for workers. What boosts wages is actual factories.”

The research by Zucman and Thomas Torslov and Ludvig Wier of the University of Copenhagen does not imply that corporate tax cuts will not help companies or lead to at least some new investment. But it challenges the magnitude of the increase that President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans promised would result from cutting the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent as part of the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul.

Throughout the debate over the tax bill, Republicans cast the country’s corporate tax rate as uncompetitive when compared with nations such as Ireland and Canada, and said the rate was pushing American multinationals to park their profits in other countries where their tax bills would be lower.

The new research concludes that assumption is wrong. “Machines don’t move to low-tax places,” the economists write, “paper profits do.”

Administration officials dismissed the researchers’ results, saying the evidence is clear that reducing corporate tax rates increases investment and wages. The chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin A. Hassett, has long argued that workers’ wages are bolstered in countries where companies locate their profits. Last year, the council publicly estimated that reducing America’s corporate rate would raise average household incomes in the United States by $4,000 to $9,000 a year in the medium run.

The research by Zucman, Torslov and Wier employs a first-of-its-kind method to assess how big a share of profits multinational corporations stash overseas. They draw on international data to determine a ratio of pretax profits to wages at individual companies, for both locally owned firms and foreign firms operating in those countries.

They find that multinationals operating in tax havens are far more profitable than locally owned companies in those countries, and that their profits dwarf what they pay workers. They break the numbers down to show the outsize profits are largely due to money being “shifted” — on paper — into those havens.

Large corporations like Apple, Google, Nike and Starbucks all take steps to book profits in tax havens such as Bermuda and Ireland. Their strategies have prompted a crackdown by government regulators, particularly in the European Union, where officials have tried to force companies to pay back taxes they believed are owed to their countries. Zucman said his research suggested that officials should step up those efforts.

“It’s very striking in the sense that these multinational companies, they are the main winners from globalization. And they are also those who have seen their tax rates fall a lot,” Zucman said. “This means that other actors in the economy, they have to pay more in order to take up the tax burden.”

Zucman said the results should cause policymakers to rethink their efforts on several fronts. They suggest, he said, that advanced countries are underestimating economic growth and undercollecting corporate tax revenues, because they are missing the profits that have been shifted on paper by multinational corporations.

Kimberly Clausing, an economist at Reed College who has written and researched extensively about the scope of shifting profits to tax havens, said the research demonstrated that “the decline in the corporate tax is a result of policy, not an inevitable feature of the global economy. This implies that policymakers have the ability to address this problem without losing out in a tax competition game against other countries. But they must have the will to tackle tax havens themselves, instead of directing their fire at other non-haven countries.”

Included in the new tax law were several steps meant to address profit-shifting, including a complicated set of global minimum taxes for multinational corporations. Those steps have frustrated many companies as they wait for the Treasury Department to issue regulations and guidance on how they will be put into effect. Some economists worry that one of the measures could actually encourage companies to move jobs out of the United States.

Zucman said it was too soon to tell whether those measures would succeed. But he said it was clear that policymakers should worry less about outdoing their allies with corporate tax cuts, and instead consider steps to crack down on profit-shifting, such as taxing profits where companies register their sales.