Fear not! You are not about to be subjected to a boring dissertation about agronomics or even foreign and domestic tax laws.
Suffice it to say, for the purpose of this piece, that all good CFOs and CEOs who run global businesses are obliged, for the benefit of their owners, to take optimal and appropriate steps to minimize taxes on their companies. The consequences of such perfectly legal actions (that is, those within all applicable laws) is that quite a lot of money sits quite still in banks around the world, doing nothing of consequence for anyone’s economy or jobs. Some estimates calculate the amount of this “lazy money” in excess of $1 trillion at the moment.
Some early 20th century wag once declared that “money is like manure,” because when it is left alone in a pile, all it does is stink, but if it is spread around it makes things grow.
That is where we are now, a delicate moment in U.S. history when it would be highly desirable to free up more money across the economy to rebuild infrastructure, promote innovation and advance educational endeavors. Instead, too much of our money is stinking up too many offshore tax havens and overseas accounts.
Given the enormous need, it’s remarkable that we haven’t yet pursued a solution which is simple, fair and has proven results: a “tax holiday” on a one-time, never-again basis for at least ten years on corporate earnings held overseas.
It’s an approach that has been considered previously by the U.S. and other countries. Most recently it has been used very successfully by Spain, which was increasingly desperate to generate economic activity.
This can be done in a variety of ways. One formula is to say if you bring it back by x date and pay, say, 10 percent of what you bring back in lieu of any other tax or penalty, you get to pass Go with no further liability, allowing a company to spend the full repatriated amount (less the 10 percent) however it sees fit, except that it, or an equivalent amount in excess of any existing annual dividend, cannot be distributed as dividends to shareholders for at least two years.
A tax holiday benefits the Treasury and thus all taxpayers — and quickly to boot. If, for example, the total amount repatriated were $1 trillion, a 10 percent tax would generate $100 billion — not chump change; corporations would have even more to invest, and the country would get a nice shot in the arm at a crucial time. With the holiday the Treasury would obviously have to pledge not to do anything similar for at least another ten years, or companies might not take it seriously enough and perhaps wait for another better offer.
If the $100 billion were earmarked for a new infrastructure stimulus program, we could also address a pressing need and help grow the economy and jobs.
To do the tax holiday right this should be a one-time reduced corporate tax rate coupled with other significant corporate tax improvements designed to give companies the right incentives to make forever global tax games a loser’s game.
How can such a good and timely idea remain so obscure at a time like this? Perhaps Speaker Boehner and the president, in an effort to give something to everyone, should include something along these lines in their Grand Bargain next week.