July 16, 2012 / 12:31 PM / 5 years ago

Idle cash piles up: David Cay Johnston

(Reuters) - IRS data suggests that, globally, U.S. nonfinancial companies hold at least three times more cash and other liquid assets than the Federal Reserve reports, idle money that could be creating jobs, funding dividends or even paying a stiff federal penalty tax for hoarding corporate cash.

The Fed's latest Flow of Funds report showed that U.S. nonfinancial companies held $1.7 trillion in liquid assets at the end of March. But newly released IRS figures show that in 2009 these companies held $4.8 trillion in liquid assets, which equals $5.1 trillion in today's dollars, triple the Fed figure.

Why the huge gap?

The Fed gets its data from the IRS, but only measures the flow of funds in the domestic economy. The IRS reports the worldwide holdings of U.S. companies, which I think is the more revealing measure.

From the companies' point of view, it makes perfect sense these days to hoard cash.

First, Congress lets overseas profits accumulate untaxed, so long as offshore subsidiaries own the cash. Second, companies have a hard time putting cash to work because fewer jobs and lower wages mean less demand for products and services. Third, a thick pile of cash gives risk-averse CEOs a nice cushion if the economy worsens.

Given the enduring hard times, you might think that corporations have used up their cash since 2009. But real pretax corporate profits have soared, from less than $1.5 trillion in 2009 to $1.9 trillion in 2010 and almost $2 trillion in 2011, data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis shows.

That is nearly $1 trillion of increased profits over two years, while actual taxes paid rose less than a tenth as much, BEA reports show. Dividends, wages and capital expenditures all grew less than profits, while undistributed profits rose. The result: more cash.

Bigger profits are good news, but it would have been better news had those increased profits been put to work, not laid off in accounts paying modest interest. Hoarding corporate cash in bank accounts, Treasuries and tax-exempt bonds poses a serious threat to the economy, as Congress recognized when it enacted the corporate income tax in 1909.

Let's get some perspective on these gigantic figures, all measured in today's dollars.

The 2009 cash reported to the IRS equaled America's entire economic output that year from New Year's Day through May Day.

This cash pool came to $16,700 for every man, woman and child in the United States, a 53 percent real increase from 2004, my calculations from IRS data show.

Looked at yet another way, these companies had 11.3 percent of their assets in cash, or enough to pay their 2009 corporate income tax bills, which amounted to $148 billion, more than 34 times over.

In short, U.S. companies hold vastly more cash than is needed to finance their operations.

For investors, companies holding 11.3 percent of their assets in cash lowers returns. Did you buy shares of American Widget so executives could park profits in savings accounts?

For workers, idle cash means idle hands and minds. With one in five Americans unemployed or underemployed, and real median wages in 2010 back down to the level of 1999, this is no time for capital to go on an extended holiday.

For taxpayers, untaxed profits subtly reduce corporate tax burdens and increase the tax burden on individuals. Because taxes owed on offshore profits are not adjusted for inflation, they depreciate at the rate of inflation. That means a double whammy for taxpayers as government pays interest on money it borrows while its accounts receivable from multinational corporations lose value.

Since the income tax system began, Congress has authorized a tax on excessive accumulated earnings to limit damage to the Treasury -- and the economy -- when companies hold far more cash than their operations require. Without the accumulated earnings tax, corporations can become bloated tax shelters instead of engines of growth.

A business holding more cash than its operations reasonably require can be hit with a 15 percent levy under Section 531 of the Internal Revenue Code, on top of the 35 percent corporate income tax. The Tax Court even devised a mechanical test in 1965 for how much is too much.

Historically the IRS has levied only privately owned firms or publicly traded companies with few shareholders. But Internal Revenue Code Section 531 applies to all corporations. President Ronald Reagan signed Section 532 (c), which made that explicit, though with an exception for untaxed offshore profits.

After reviewing decades of literature on these code sections, I cannot fathom any rational basis for giving multinational companies an exception to the cash hoarding rules, which discriminates against purely domestic firms.

Some of the multinational corporations say they will bring home what could be more than a trillion dollars if Congress will give them an 85 percent tax discount. The companies frame this as creating jobs. But as I showed in an earlier column, unless there are strict rules, the money can be used to buy back company stock while destroying jobs.

Want to motivate companies to put some of those trillions of dollars of idle cash to work creating jobs, paying dividends or sharing the burden of taxes? Call 1-202-224-3121 and tell your senator or representative you want Section 531 vigorously enforced - now - and the offshore loophole closed immediately.

(David Cay Johnston is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.)

Editing by Eddie Evans

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