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US multinationals eye foreign profits tax break with Trump win

Donald Trump’s White House victory moves Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft and other big US corporations much closer than they have been in years to winning a big tax break on $2.6 trillion in foreign profits.

Tax reform is shaping up as among the most fruitful areas for cooperation between Trump and his fellow Republicans, who held control in Tuesday’s elections of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Trump and congressional Republicans have separate, but similar, tax reform plans. Both would slash tax rates on businesses, simplify and cut individual taxes, and let companies bring overseas profits into the country at a low tax rate, raising prospects for a sweeping deal on taxes.

Bipartisan support for corporate tax reform has been growing as multinational companies have amassed tax-deferred profits abroad and brought continuous lobbying pressure over a decade for a tax break on them.

“On tax policy, he’s basically adopted the House blueprint as his approach,” said Rohit Kumar, co-leader of the tax policy services practice at Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“There’s a better chance that something happens next year than there has been at any point in the last several years.”

At the heart of the issue is a law that lets US companies hold foreign profits overseas without paying US corporate tax on them, unless and until those profits are brought into the United States, which is known as repatriation.

Corporations have $2.6 trillion stashed abroad under this law. That money could be repatriated any time, but businesses choose not to because it would incur the 35 per cent statutory corporate income tax.

Trump and House Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan, would still need to agree on how to pay for lower corporate tax rates and on whether US-based multinationals should pay US taxes on future foreign profits.

Trump and congressional Republicans would also need support for tax reform from Democrats if they intend to present the package as a benefit for the country as a whole, analysts say.

Such proposals have stumbled before on Democrats’ objections that they are corporate give-away, and on Republicans’ insistence that they be paired with a cut in the corporate income tax rate.

Democrats could still block legislation they dislike from reaching the floor of the Senate, which requires a super majority of 60 votes to advance a measure, but there are procedural maneuvers Republicans could use to bypass them.

The one-time surge in revenue that would result from repatriation could help fund another cornerstone of Trump’s campaign platform – a pledge to boost the economy through big investments in US highways, roads, bridges, airports and seaports.

Infrastructure spending was not a campaign priority for congressional Republicans. But a new job-creating program could appeal to Democrats and be valuable to lawmakers in the 2018 mid-term elections.

The four companies with the largest profits held overseas are: Apple Inc ($200bn), Pfizer Inc ($194bn), Microsoft Corp ($108bn) and General Electric Co ($104bn), according to March estimates by Citizens for Tax Justice, a corporate income tax watchdog group in Washington.

The European Commission in August hit Apple with a €13bn ($14.3bn) bill for back taxes, fanning concerns among other US multinationals and US officials that their untaxed foreign revenues could be vulnerable to further European penalties.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told an interviewer in September that he expects to repatriate billions of dollars in global profits to the United States in 2017 but did not say how. He said in another interview that the company would not bring money back unless there was “a fair rate” and said he was optimistic that tax reform would occur next year.

BUSINESS SUPPORT

The House tax plan, which Ryan and other leading Republicans promoted throughout the campaign, would lower the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 20 per cent, force multinationals to repatriate existing foreign earnings and adopt a “territorial” system that would largely end taxation of US companies’ foreign income.

Trump is calling for a steeper rate cut to 15 per cent, and he has proposed a 10 per cent tax rate for repatriated overseas profits held in cash, payable over a decade.

Some are optimistic that those differences can be overcome.

“In the end, there are no differences that can’t be solved on the tax issue,” said Republican Representative Tom Cole.

The House Republican plan has had significant support from business.

Kumar’s PwC advises the Alliance for Competitive Taxation, which lobbies on tax reform for over 40 companies ranging from Alcoa Inc and Cisco Systems Inc to Alphabet’s Google Inc, Procter & Gamble Co and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“We know what we want,” said Dorothy Coleman, a tax policy expert at the National Association of Manufacturers, referring to a lower corporate tax rate, adopting a “modern, competitive” territorial system, and a permanent R&D credit among other wishes.

The House’s corporate tax plan would cut revenues by more than $890bn over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Centre. The same research group says Trump’s corporate plan would reduce revenues by $2.6 trillion.

Trump and Republicans in Congress view tax reform as a way to jump-start economic growth and job creation.

Business lobbyists say that higher tax revenues from a growing economy would address much of the House plan’s shortfall. Trump advisers say revenue erosion posed by the president-elect’s plan would be overcome by growth and policy initiatives including a more aggressive approach to trade.

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