Watch Out for the Expense-deferral Rule

Corporate tax experts say the centerpiece of Obama's foreign tax reform proposal is the expense-deferral rule — and it will affect every multinational company.

The details are sketchy, but the intent is clear. President Obama is pushing Congress to rework tax rules affecting U.S. multinational corporations so that more revenue will flow back into the United States – about $210 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Treasury Department.

Obama’s plan, parts of which were released yesterday during the President’s press conference, outlines four rule reforms aimed at companies with overseas subsidiaries. The proposed rules would put restrictions on the practice of deferring tax payments related to overseas profits, close the foreign tax credit loophole, make permanent the research and experimentation tax credit, and eliminate the “check the box” rule that allows companies to shift income between subsidiaries on a tax-free basis. More details on the new rules are expected to be released later this week.

Raising the $210 billion looks feasible when the Treasury Department puts the numbers on the table. Treasury says that U.S. multinational corporations paid about $16 billion in U.S. taxes on approximately $700 billion of foreign active earnings in 2004, which is the most recent year for which data is available. That is an effective U.S. tax rate of about 2.3%. By comparison, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that the average effective U.S. tax rate on the domestic income of large corporations with positive income is 25%.

In addition, 83 of the 100 of the largest U.S. corporations have subsidiaries in tax havens, according to a 2009 GAO report. What’s more, nearly one-third of all foreign profits reported by U.S. corporations in 2003 came from the low-tax countries of Bermuda, the Netherlands, and Ireland. Taken together, the extra revenue generated by targeting foreign-source income and closing tax-haven loopholes could mean Obama will reach his goal.

“To some extent, all U.S.-based companies with international operations are negatively impacted. It’s just a matter of varying degrees,” says Marc Gerson, a tax attorney with Miller & Chevalier and a former majority tax counsel for the House Committee on Ways and Means.

From a corporate perspective, “CFOs will have to evaluate the proposals on an individual, company-by-company basis,” adds Gerson, because it is difficult to generalize about the potential effect of the proposals. Many factors will need to be taken into consideration, such as the extent of a company’s international operations, the structure of those operations, and the company’s debt profile.

For example, Gerson believes that highly leveraged companies will likely be stung more than other companies by the proposal that affects the timing of deductions allocated to foreign-source income. Currently, companies are allowed to defer paying U.S. taxes on profits from foreign subsidiaries until they repatriate the profits back to the United States. But the Obama rule change would force companies to give up the deferral and repatriate profits before claiming an interest-expense deduction. For highly leveraged companies, the interest deduction may be more valuable than the deferral, contends Gerson.

As a result, passage of the deferral proposal in its current form could force debt-laden companies to repatriate profits and pay taxes on that income sooner rather than later, says Gerson.

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