Tax avoiders: Apple joins other multinationals in sinking to the bottom of the ocean

Illustration: Michael Mucci

Apple is sitting on the biggest pile of cash in corporate history, some $US200 billion ($259 billion) stowed offshore, safely out of reach of frustrated US tax authorities.

So determined is Apple not to pay tax that when its investors picked up their dividends last month, they didn’t hail from that pile of cash. Rather, the dividends were paid with borrowed money.

It is cheaper for the tech giant to raise money on bond markets than to repatriate cash. So it is that Apple hordes its cash offshore, outside the US, because it is scared to pay tax. This is rational behaviour from the company, albeit ethically challenged.

The burgeoning profits of US digital giants and other multinationals are swelling the coffers of the world’s tax havens. Photo: AFP

The burgeoning profits of US digital giants and other multinationals are swelling the coffers of the world’s tax havens. Paradoxically, a good deal of the cash lurking in the Caymans and the British Virgin Islands is reinvested buying bonds in the US and other stable Western economies. The gains from multinational tax avoiders are being used to fund government deficits in the West. It is some merry-go-round.

Meanwhile, on Thursday evening in these pages yet another multinational was exposed for tax chicanery. Over the past seven years American Express Australia has booked revenues of $8 billion but paid no net tax. All up, Amex has recorded tax benefits, rather than payments, of $3.3 million.

That is flair; a global corporate giant paying less income tax than an apprentice salad bar attendant at Burger King. For those who missed the story, billions in credit card receivables are transferred to a related Amex entity, a partnership whose partners are domiciled in Jersey and the US.

Here was yet another multinational paying little or no tax. Our two-year investigation into the likes of Google, News Corp, Shell, Chevron, Pfizer, William Hill, Glencore, Facebook is shaping up to be just the tip of the tax avoidance iceberg.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Bottom of the Harbour scheme of the 1970s – where hundreds of companies were stripped of their assets and left to sink – is but a drop in the ocean. This is the Bottom of the Ocean scheme, where billions every year vanish from Australian shores into low-lying Caribbean islands.

How could it have escaped the attention of successive governments and regulators?

Unlike the top-100 companies listed on the ASX, which are the focus of investors and sharemarket analysts, and therefore the focus of the finance press, there is little visibility when it comes to the financial statements of foreign multinationals operating in Australia.

Should you wish to see the accounts of a BHP Billiton or a Woolworths, you merely go to the ASX website and tap them up with a couple of keystrokes. You will find “general purpose” financial statements, which mostly follow Australian accounting standards and provide detail of transactions with related parties. Moreover, these reports are not just accessible, they are free.

Should you wish to view the financial statements of a foreign multinational, you will have to search the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) database to find the right entity. In the process, you will pay ASIC about $40 a pop for each set of accounts. The information is technically public but you will pay.

One reader inquired this week, “do any of these companies pay tax?” It was a good question. Only one company we have searched seemed to pay close to the 30 per cent corporate income tax rate while being free of devious tax avoidance structures; Nestle Australia. Naturally, being a journalist we did not deem this good news story as worthy of publication, so we left it alone.

But it bears mention now for its rarity. Nestle operates as a proper body corporate, replete with a board of independent directors who are predominantly Australian residents and who report detailed financial statements with no trace of tax skulduggery. There will be more like this, no doubt.

These, however, appear to be the exceptions to the rule. While proper audit procedures are in place in the sphere of ASX companies, there is a widespread failure of the audit profession and regulators in the foreign multinational space: accounts which don’t stack up, myriad failures of disclosure, and a slew of failures to adhere to Australian accounting standards – and therefore the Corporations Act.

Meanwhile, there has also been an evolution in multinational company structures away from independent “bodies corporate”, with “mind and management” in Australia, towards puppet regimes with smaller boards and reporting lines straight to head office overseas.

If there was the political will in Canberra, some elementary reforms could be struck right now to stem the rising tide of tax avoidance.

Instead of allowing them to file “special purpose” financial statements, the corporate regulator could simply insist Australian subsidiaries of multinationals produce full “general purpose” accounts.

Further, they could remove the exemption for such companies reporting the financial statements of their wholly-owned subsidiaries offshore.

The increased disclosure would deter fancy tax avoidance schemes. Alas, it seems the political will is shifting in the other direction. The government put up draft legislation this week to shield 700 of the country’s biggest private companies from disclosing their tax affairs on the grounds their wealthy proprietors might be subject to kidnapping.

It is the most shabby excuse for a billionaires’ mates deal yet.