H. Jacob Lager

Apple: Just your average Joe when it comes to taxes

In deferred income, Foreign taxes on March 26, 2012 at 7:58 am

I have a few rich friends who love to complain about money.  One of them, Joe, has a $2 million mountainside view.  But he’ll swear up and down that he doesn’t know how he’s going to heat his pool, that he’s underwater on his investment properties, and that he’s got cash flow “issues.”

When it comes to taxes, Apple Inc. is like Joe, but with enormous market capitalization.

Unlike most publicly-traded multi-nationals, Apple’s financial statements actually report deferred taxes on its foreign income.  Even though generally accepted accounting principles would allow Apple to not book US tax expenses on its foreign profits if they were deemed permanently invested overseas, Apple nevertheless volunteers this expense.  This allows Apple to publicly claim a worldwide effective tax rate of 24.2 percent.

Of course, Apple doesn’t actually pay that tax unless it repatriates those foreign profits. Which it doesn’t.  Nor does it seem likely to do so in the near future.

On a March 19 conference call with investors, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer specifically noted that the potential tax consequences of repatriation deter any such domestic investment.  According to him, U.S. tax laws provide a “considerable economic disincentive to U.S. companies that might otherwise repatriate the substantial amount of foreign cash that they have.” (Of course it helps that Apple’s domestic revenues are strong enough to invest in its business, and to fund its recently-announced dividend and share repurchase program.)

So why does Apple elect to report a larger effective tax rate than required?  Nobody outside the company really knows.  It may be that Apple is simply saving some current profits for future lean times.  If it later decides to permanently not repatriate those foreign profits, Apple could then reverse the tax expense and report those past profits in that future period.   Or Apple could simply be avoiding the negative publicity other multinationals experience their international tax structuring is scrutinized (*cough* GE *cough*).

Or, like Joe, they just like complaining about their bills.

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