Curious Capitalist

It’s Official: Tech Has Replaced Banking as the New Corporate Bad Guy

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JASON REED / Reuters

Apple CEO Tim Cook appears before a Senate homeland security and governmental affairs investigations subcommittee hearing on offshore profit shifting and the U.S. tax code, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 21, 2013.

U.S. senators have accused Apple, the world’s most valuable company, of also being the world’s biggest tax avoider, as congressional investigators yesterday laid out how the technology giant has jumped through tax loophole after loophole in order to save some $44 billion of otherwise taxable income. Today they’ll follow up by grilling Apple CEO Tim Cook on Capitol Hill.

Aside from the fact that Apple clearly has amazing tax lawyers, what does all this mean? Here are the four key things you need to know:

1. Corporate tax reform will be the big issue in Washington now that the deficit is off the front burner. As I wrote in back in January, American firms have some $2 trillion in cash on their balance sheets stashed abroad, in large part because they don’t want to bring that money home and pay America’s 35% corporate tax rate. (Ireland, where Apple apparently stashed much of its cash, has a 12.5% rate — though it appears Apple was able to negotiate an even lower one than that.) With unemployment still high, and wages still flat, the government wants companies to bring that cash back to the U.S. and put it work creating jobs at home – and the investigation into Apple’s finances is clearly a warning shot to other major U.S. multinationals. Tax reform is coming, not just in the U.S., but also in other major developed countries (more about that below).

(MORESenate Panel Says Apple Uses Firms Outside the U.S. to Avoid Taxes)

2. Cash rich tech firms are replacing bankers as the new corporate bad guys. A year ago, I wrote a column called Learning To Hate Big Tech, which led with the investigation into Apple’s tax avoidance, but also laid out other Big Tech v. Government battles, like the push to get Amazon to pay local sales tax (which the government won) and the FTC’s anti-trust investigations into Google. The bottom line is that when you have a lot of cash and can move much of it abroad easily, as the biggest tech companies do, everyone is going to start paying closer attention to what you are doing. As I wrote at the time, “Steve Jobs was once quoted asking, ‘Why join the Navy if you can be a pirate?’ But when you are the most valuable company in the world, it’s harder to play the rebel.” The truth is that Big Tech is as corporate as it comes — and since Big Tech is also where most of the new growth and income creation in this country is right now, there’s little doubt that these companies will draw more and more attention from regulators, tax collectors, and social activists.

How well the industry defends itself may depend on how many new jobs it can account for. After coming under fire for outsourcing, Apple published a study showing that it had “created or supported” 514,000 U.S. jobs, far more than the 47,000 Americans currently on its payroll. The study’s methodology can be interpreted and spun many ways, but the bottom line is that this is going to become a more heated political issue in the years ahead. Technology has historically created more jobs than it has destroyed. But the periods in which the creative destruction happens aren’t pretty, and they tend to be characterized by high levels of inequality or social discontent — think Victorian England or the decades preceding the 1929 stock market crash in the U.S.

(MAGAZINE: The Trillion-Dollar Homecoming)

A number of academics, including folks at tech-friendly places like MIT and Stanford, believe we’re entering one of those periods. That’s why it will become crucial for Big Tech to prove that it’s enriching the 99% as well as the 0.001%. As the folks on Wall Street know, social issues can very quickly become just as important as your social network.”

3. Large government debts and shrinking public budgets means all rich countries will be looking more closely at corporate tax avoidance. At Davos in January, British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country is leading the G8 at the moment, announced his desire to take on corporate tax avoiders internationally, telling multinational tax avoiders to “wake up and smell the coffee,” in a pointed reference to Starbucks, which recently “volunteered” to pay more tax in the U.K. in response to an investigation into its tax avoidance in Britain. And just yesterday, he announced he’d written to leaders in tax havens asking for their help with this initiative. Bottom line: All rich countries are looking to clamp down on multinational tax avoiders. Look for this to be a big topic at the G8 summit in a month.

4. The heat is being turned up high on major corporations to do their part. In an economically bifurcated world, where companies are flush but workers are not, and where the historic relationship between corporate profits and local economic growth has been broken, big companies are going to be under a lot more pressure to do more for the countries in which they operate. The push-back against tax avoiders like Apple is one example of this. Wal-Mart’s response to the garment factory fire and devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh recently is another;  as I noted recently, the U.S. retailer is now funding Bangladeshi government efforts to improve labor standards. The bottom line is that companies that have been flying 35,000 feet over the economic troubles of their headquarter nations or the countries in which they operate are going to be force to come back down to earth. Apple’s tax troubles are just the beginning of a very big fight between the world’s richest companies and its governments.

(MOREThe Next Big Thing In Corporate-Tax Avoidance)