Check the Box: The $10 Billion Tax Loophole
by Mark Boyd, 2/20/2014
News of corporations taking advantage of tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share toward the cost of government continues to flow in. Usually, closing these loopholes requires legislative action by a divided Congress, but there’s one $10 billion a year loophole that can be closed with a Treasury Department regulation.
Using a controversial tax loophole known as “check the box” to store its profits in a Dutch tax haven, a recent Bloomberg report reveals that IBM has been able to reduce its tax rate to a two-decade low. In addition, the report shows that ever since IBM’s Dutch subsidiary was formed, the company has been able to cut its tax rate in 12 of the last 14 years and to accumulate $44.4 billion in offshore profits, on which it hasn’t paid U.S. taxes. The dramatic extent of IBM’s tax avoidance is highlighted in a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, which calculates that over the period of 2008 to 2012, IBM paid just 5.8 percent in federal income taxes.
The “check the box” rule, originally created to simplify tax filing for companies, allows corporations to designate their foreign subsidiaries as “disregarded entities,” which are exempt from taxation. By strategically positioning these subsidiaries in low-tax countries and filtering profits through them, multinational corporations can largely avoid their tax-paying responsibilities. With a favorable legal and regulatory environment, as well as preferential tax treatment, the Netherlands has become a popular choice for “check the box” users and multinational corporations like IBM channel trillions in untaxed profits through the country each year.
The damage caused by “check the box” to U.S. revenues is significant. According to the White House, “check the box” costs the U.S. $10 billion per year. The good news is that since “check the box” was created as a regulation by the Department of the Treasury, it can be repealed the same way, without congressional action. And when President Obama first took office in 2009, his administration made ending “check the box” a high priority. But predictably, corporate interests, such as General Electric and Johnson & Johnson, used their significant lobbying influence to keep the rule in place and the Obama administration has stayed away from the issue ever since.
The substantial revenues that this simple reform would generate could be used to fund necessary investments in our society, economy, and infrastructure such as Head Start programs, military pensions, food assistance programs, unemployment benefits, or lowering interest rates on student loans.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama lamented deepening inequality in America and stated that 2014 would be a “year of action” dedicated to improving the lives of average Americans. If the president is serious about making good on this promise, then taking swift action to close the harmful “check the box” loophole would be a very wise move.