As part of its radical but still mostly undefined tax plan, the Trump administration proposed a tax holiday for corporate earnings stored overseas. Reporters have been hearing on background that the tax rate would be slashed from 35 percent to 10 percent.
But judging from the last time it was tried, most of the cash Donald Trump would allow megacorporations to bring home from overseas at a bargain-basement tax rate would end up being used by corporate executives to inflate the prices of their stocks, thereby enriching themselves and their biggest investors — and doing little to employ Americans and grow the real economy.
From 2004 to 2005, the Bush administration and Congress tried a one-time tax repatriation holiday, cutting the rate to 5.25 percent.
A Senate study in 2011 found that corporations brought $312 billion they had stashed overseas back to the United States, avoiding $3.3 billion in taxes as a result of the repatriation rate. But the top 15 companies that took advantage of the holiday actually reduced their total U.S. employment by 20,931 jobs.
Meanwhile, the report surveyed studies of all 840 corporations that took advantage of repatriation and concluded that there was “no evidence that repatriated funds increased overall U.S. employment.”
So what did the companies use the money for? The report found that two things increased dramatically after repatriation: executive compensation and stock buybacks.
The top five executives at the top 15 repatriating corporations saw their annual compensation increase by 27 percent from 2004 to 2005. Meanwhile, the top 15 repatriating corporations increased their spending on stock buybacks 16 percent from 2004 to 2005 and 38 percent from 2005 to 2006.
William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has long studied the issue of stock buybacks. He noted in a Brookings paper published in 2015 that corporations have essentially established a “buyback economy“: Between 2004 and 2013, 454 companies in the S&P 500 Index did $3.4 trillion in stock buybacks, “representing 51 percent of net income. These companies expended an additional 35 percent of net income on dividends.”
“Why are you giving these companies any tax breaks when the vast majority of the profits are just being used to boost stock prices?” he asked in an interview with The Intercept.
Corporations are hardly concealing the fact that they’d like to repeat the 2004 tax repatriation experiment.
In January, The Intercept reviewed dozens of earnings calls and investor briefings and found many executives suggesting they’d use another repatriation holiday to increase stock buybacks and acquire other companies.
For instance, Cisco Systems Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kramer told a securities analyst, “We would have a blend of actions we can certainly take with our dividend as well as our share buyback, as well as leading flexibility for us to be able to do [mergers and acquisitions] and strategic investments.”
Bush himself realized that the country had been swindled — at least according to a 2015 interview with former president Bill Clinton. Clinton told Inc. Magazine about a conversation he had with Bush. According to Clinton, Bush said “I hope you can figure it out. I’d never fool with it again. They gave me all these promises about, we’d sign a one-time, 5 3/4 percent repatriation tax, they’d put the rest of it into jobs and pay raises.”
Instead it went into management pay and stock buybacks, Clinton noted. “And he said, ‘I’m done with it.’ It was really a touching conversation. He really felt personally burned by his constituents.”