Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have cast it as an outrage that should be a key target for the next president: a tax break they say encourages employers to ship American jobs abroad.
The charge could be dismissed as typical campaign-trail exaggeration during a Democratic primary season marked by populism, except for one thing. Many analysts say it's true. "The U.S. tax system does provide an incentive to locate production offshore," says Martin Sullivan, a contributing editor to Tax Notes, a non-profit publication that tracks tax issues.
At issue is the U.S. tax code's treatment of profits earned by foreign subsidiaries of American corporations. Profits earned in the United States are subject to the 35% corporate tax. But multinational corporations can defer paying U.S. taxes on their overseas profits until they return them to the USA — transfers that often don't happen for years. General Electric, for example, has $62 billion in "undistributed earnings" parked offshore, according to recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Drug giant Pfizer boasts $60 billion. ExxonMobil has $56 billion.
"If you had two companies in Pittsburgh that both were going to expand capacity and create 100 jobs, our tax code puts the company who chooses to put the plant in Pittsburgh at a competitive disadvantage over the company that chooses to move to a tax haven," says former White House economist Gene Sperling, a Clinton adviser.
The Democrats, saying the United States has overlooked the costs to working Americans in its rush to embrace globalization, have vowed to eliminate any tax incentive for further offshoring.
Obama also has co-sponsored legislation that would give "Patriot Employers" a tax credit equal to 1% of their taxable income if they maintain or increase the ratio of their U.S. workforce to the number of workers abroad, keep their headquarters in the USA and meet other wage, health care and pension requirements. "We can end tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and give those breaks to companies that create good jobs with decent wages here in America," Obama said last month in Lorain, Ohio.
But multinationals say that not every job created abroad comes at the expense of a laid-off American. And overhauling the corporate tax system without causing new problems won't be easy.
Sperling concedes that Clinton has not "worked out every detail" of her corporate tax plan. Obama's proposed tax break draws fire both from analysts who say it could be manipulated and business representatives who find it too stingy.
"Big businesses will always look for ways to skirt the tax code. An Obama administration will close loopholes and will tighten (IRS) enforcement so companies cannot go around tax regulations," says Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
The U.S. has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, and its corporate tax code has a well-earned reputation for complexity. But despite the high rate, the U.S. takes in less annual revenue from corporate taxes, measured as a percentage of economic output, than almost all other major economies. Part of the explanation for that shortfall is the allowance for corporations to postpone taxes on foreign income.