Lee Sheppard has an article today on Apple's tax tricks [gated] where she works through Apple's multinational structure & planning detailes as outlined in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) report. You should read the whole article, but here are some of its key concepts:
We're ... not easily shocked by transfer pricing practices that the U.S. government accepts, for better or worse. ...But Apple's planning ... is a special case . We're talking gross worldwide revenues the size of the California state budget, and no tax being paid anywhere on a huge chunk of profits. What is truly surprising about the Apple case is its brazenness. PSI concluded that Apple's self-serving intercompany contracts had no effect on its business practices.
...Nearly two-thirds of Apple's revenue comes from foreign sales. According to the PSI report, this foreign income is routed through Ireland and may be taxed nowhere, not even in Ireland. ...
Apple Operations International (AOI), Apple's Irish-registered holding company, acts as an internal finance company. ... AOI claims tax residence nowhere.
Apple Sales International (ASI), an Irish principal company that manages Apple's supply chain and sales to Europe and Asia, is a subsidiary of Apple Operations Europe (AOE), which is a subsidiary of AOI and has employees and operations. ASI has 250 employees and deals with Apple's third-party Chinese manufacturers.
ASI claims no tax residence anywhere ... [emphases added].When I heard these statements--more than once--in the hearings, I wondered why on earth the Senator who was asking at the questions at the time didn't stop right there and say hold on, are you telling us that these companies exist, we are supposed to treat each as a separate taxpayer and respect its independence from the parent company for tax purposes, and accept at the same time that each resides for tax purposes in no country anywhere?
Let's be clear: humans never get away with these kinds of arguments. You might be resident in many places but I think it is very hard to claim that you are resident nowhere--governments always seem to find some reason and some way to claim you. But somehow the Senator didn't challenge this troubling statement.
If the challenge had come, we might have heard a not-so-simple design explanation from Apple, such as that the subsidiaries are incorporated in Ireland, which would make them Irish residents for US tax purposes, but for Irish tax purposes each is resident in Bermuda, while for Bermuda purposes each is resident in Ireland or at least not resident in Bermuda; either way, certainly neither is resident in the United States even though both are clearly controlled from California.
Simple, clean, one button design interface Apple's corporate structure is not. Funny how Steve Jobs' vision was, and now Tim Cook's vision is, so different for the tax department. Yet this basic structure is, I must hasten to repeat, perfectly, unequivocally legal, understood and accepted and in many ways even facilitated by governments all over the world including and perhaps especially the United States with its deferral regime. But that doesn't mean the whole structure is similarly straightforward from a legal compliance perspective. More from Lee:
Apple conducts all of its research and development in the United States. Apple Inc., the U.S. parent, has a cost-sharing agreement with AOE and ASI, which pay 60 percent of the cost of this research. Apple's intellectual property is in the United States with the U.S. parent, Apple Inc. Apple told PSI that it divides R&D costs according to worldwide sales revenues.This arrangement, Lee tells us, dates back to a more permissive time in cost sharing regulatory history and would probably be protected from today's more stringent requirements. Lee observes:
...AOI has no employees; its American board members, who are Apple executives, hold their meetings in California, often without the participation of the lone Irish director. Apple's tax director told PSI that he believed AOI is not managed and controlled in Ireland. Apple told PSI that AOI has not paid income tax to any government for the past five years.
...Ireland takes the position that it is a legitimate low-tax country that only permits the 12.5 percent rate for income from trade, an ancient English concept that appears to require a ruling. Yet Apple told PSI that Ireland permitted an income calculation that enabled Apple subsidiaries to pay Irish corporate income tax at a rate of 2 percent or less.Lee wonders if this puts Ireland in a troublesome place vis a vis EU law which prohibits burying state aid within generally applicable tax laws, especially since Ireland is already getting some heat for changing its laws "to accommodate the numerous U.S. multinationals that use it to shelter European sales income." She then works through US domestic tax law and the US-Ireland treaty to show that AOI could very well be viewed as being taxable in the US, yet its income probably wouldn't be subject to tax in any event given the rather complex, internally inconsistent, but overall taxpayer friendly rules of subpart F and its ancillaries.
All in all Lee runs through of some of the more arcane complexities of the US international tax rules in this article, and makes a pretty persuasive case for viewing the system as hopelessly absurd in the extreme. Tim Cook says he wants to change that, that he's all for a simpler, cleaner interface for the tax code. But remember that very often when someone says they want simplicity, what they really just want is to be able to pay (even) less tax.