Companies seek tax break for overseas profits

@CNNMoney May 20, 2011: 3:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- Many American companies would love to move the big pot of money they make overseas back to the United States -- saying they could use the money to create jobs -- and they're pushing in Congress for a tax break to do so.

Critics say there's a big problem with that idea: It's been tried before, and it doesn't work.

But as Congress continues to grapple with mounting budget deficits, and amid talk of revamping the tax system, the corporate tax holiday could get traction.

Generally, the U.S. corporate tax rate stands at 35%, the highest in the industrialized world. But companies don't have to pay that rate on profits made outside of the United States. So lots of companies shelter profits offshore.

The tax holiday would lower the corporate tax rate to 5.25% for big companies such as the bill's proponents -- including Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) and Cisco (CSCO, Fortune 500) -- if they move their overseas profits to the United States.

Companies with most untaxed foreign income

Proponents say the move would bring as much as $1 trillion into the United States, spur big companies to create jobs and give Treasury more revenue to work with to slash mounting federal deficits.

But tax holiday opponents, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, are skeptical. They say a similar holiday in 2004 didn't spur companies to hire more or grow.

Nevertheless, last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a bill that would reduce the corporate tax rate to 5.25% on offshore earnings brought back to the United States.

The measure has big guns behind it. Leading the way is a group called WIN America, which stands for Working to Invest Now, that includes three dozen major corporations, including some in tech, energy and health care.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports it as does House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. So does Andy Stern, who used to run the Service Employees International Union.

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"While fundamental tax reform will take time, repatriation is an interim step that we can take to encourage businesses to bring investment back into our country," Cantor said in a statement.

One company in the coalition pushing for the tax holiday is the drug maker Pfizer, whose untaxed foreign profits topped $48.2 billion in 2010, according to accounting expert Jack Ciesielski.

But independent research suggests that the holiday might not do much for the economy or deficits.

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates while tax revenue would jump $25 billion in the first few years, it would ultimately cost taxpayers $80 billion over the next decade.

In a congressional hearing last week, Jane Gravelle, an economic policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service, said a similar corporate tax holiday that Congress passed in 2004 didn't create new jobs to the economy, as intended. Instead, companies paid shareholders and hoarded money overseas anticipating another tax holiday.

Geithner has said in testimony to Congress that he wants "comprehensive reform" that lowers corporate tax rates, broadens the base and gives incentives for people and companies to invest more in the United States.

The business community, itself, isn't unified in support of a one-time tax holiday.

At the same hearing last week, a panel of chief financial officers said they thought a one-time tax holiday would be a mistake. The group included Edward Rapp of Caterpillar (CAT, Fortune 500), Mark Buthman of Kimberly-Clarke (KMB, Fortune 500), Greg Hayes of United Technologies (UTX, Fortune 500) and James Crines of Zimmer Holdings (ZMH).

"Done in isolation, I don't believe it accomplishes the goal of leveling the playing field," Crines said in the hearing. To top of page

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