Ten Reasons the U.S. Should Move to a Territorial System of Taxing Foreign Earnings

 
 
May 11, 2011


For a PDF of the full study, click here. A summary of the report and the key findings are below.

Tax Foundation Special Report No. 191

Introduction

There is a growing debate in Washington over how U.S. companies should be taxed on the profits they earn abroad. The outcome of this debate will determine how well U.S. workers and companies can compete in the ever-changing global economy.

Currently, the U.S. has a worldwide tax sys­tem, which means business income is taxed at the U.S. rate no matter where it is earned—at home or abroad. However, companies can defer paying U.S. tax on active foreign income until it is brought home.

In order to prevent companies from paying taxes twice on the same dollar of income—once to the host country and a second time to the U.S.—our tax code gives companies a credit on their U.S. tax return for those foreign taxes. After paying taxes to the host countries, com­panies have two choices for the residual profits: bring them back to the U.S. or reinvest them in their foreign operations.

If they chose to bring the profits back home, they must pay the difference between the amount of tax paid to the foreign govern­ment and what would be owed under the U.S. rate of 35 percent for most large firms. In other words, if a company wanted to bring home $100 in profits from Great Britain, it would first pay the British tax rate of 26 percent (or $26) and then pay an additional $9 to the U.S. to bring the total rate of tax to 35 percent.

Instead, the company can reinvest those profits in its foreign operations and defer pay­ing the additional U.S. tax indefinitely as long as the profits are working actively abroad. Crit­ics of this process, known as "deferral," say that the system encourages companies to keep their profits offshore and avoid paying U.S. taxes on that income. Defenders of deferral say that it simply recognizes the well established principle that income should not be taxed until it is real­ized (or repatriated), and it puts U.S. firms on a level playing field with their foreign competi­tors who don't operate under a worldwide tax system. Others say our current international tax regime needs to be replaced with a territo­rial system that more closely resembles those of most other capitalist nations.

As U.S. lawmakers consider how to move forward, they face three distinct choices:

1. Maintain the current deferral system and international tax rules for taxing the foreign earnings of U.S. multinationals.

2. Eliminate deferral and move toward a pure worldwide system of taxation.

3. Move toward a territorial system and tax only those profits earned within the U.S. borders.

Based on the tax system changes being undertaken by our major trading partners, as well as the trends in economic research, law­makers would do well to consider the following 10 reasons why our current international tax rules should be replaced with a territorial or exemption regime that exempts most foreign profits from U.S. tax.

Ten Reasons the U.S. Should Move to a Territorial System of Taxing Foreign Earnings

1. Parity. The U.S. system must be aligned with our global trading partners.

2. The Experiences of Japan and Great Britain are lessons for the U.S.

3. The premise of the worldwide tax system - capital export neutrality (CEN) - is obsolete when subsidiaries have access to global capital markets and can self-fund their expansion with retained earnings.

4. The worldwide tax system violates the benefit principle of taxation.

5. The U.S. maintains a territorial tax system for foreign-owned companies but a worldwide system for U.S. companies. Mov­ing to a full territorial system will level the playing field.

6. The compliance cost of the current system is excessively high relative to companies' foreign activities and the revenues raised from taxing foreign-source income.

7. Our current system traps capital abroad - the "lockout" effect.

8. Our high corporate tax rate and worldwide system makes it cheaper for companies to take on debt rather than use their own profits to fund their growth.

9. The current system dissuades global companies from headquartering in the U.S.

10. Eliminating deferral nearly killed the U.S. shipping industry.

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