The world’s most profitable corporation got slammed today with an unprecedented $14 billion dollar tax bill from the European Union. So much to unpack here, but let’s take it a step at a time.
First, the global corporate tax system is an unholy mess. The fact that big tech companies can park their “intellectual property” – which is their most important asset — in whatever country is willing to give them the lowest tax rate makes no sense. Why should Apple pay an effective tax rate near 30% on its U.S. earnings, and a mere 4% on overseas earnings? Crazy.
Having said that, Apple is only doing what the screwed-up system allows it to do. Would its shareholders want any less? And in Ireland, it has found a very willing partner, which gets 5,500 jobs in return for its tax generosity. Does the EU have the power to retroactively undo a deal between one of its member countries and the world’s largest company? We will now find out.
Meanwhile, U.S. companies and officials believe this is all part of a multi-pronged EU campaign against U.S. tech companies. This has the appearance of truth. Europeans don’t like the fact that a handful of powerful U.S. tech companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. – appear to hold the keys to their future. (If it makes the Europeans feel any better, those of us in the media business feel much the same way.)
Then there is the issue of who gets the money. U.S. politicians have been eyeing the overseas stash of cash held by Apple – more than $200 billion – and by other companies as a possible salve to its own budget and economic problems. Politicians from both parties have proposed various deals that would allow companies to repatriate earnings for investment in the U.S. economy at a low tax rate. Now, the Europeans are trying to get that money for themselves. How dare they! Whose intellectual property is it, anyway?
And finally there is this: Margrethe Vestager is proving herself to be one tough lady. If you missed Vivienne Wald’s wonderful profile of her in May, you can read it here.