CEOs suggest Trump tax cut may lift investors more than jobs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump is selling tax reform to Americans on the promise it will create extra income for companies to invest in their businesses and create jobs. Some of the biggest companies have very different plans.

A Wall Street sign is seen in Lower Manhattan in New York, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

U.S. corporations are saying they would use a tax reform windfall to buy back shares, retire debt and other shareholder-friendly moves, in recent post-earnings calls with investors and securities analysts.

The Trump administration wants to cut the U.S. corporate income tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent and encourage multinationals to bring home profits held overseas. The president promised his tax reform would give companies incentives to build plants in the United States rather than overseas.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers bolstered that with an analysis that concluded lower corporate taxes would motivate companies to invest in new machines and hire more skilled workers.

But some of the biggest S&P 500 companies have plans more pleasing to investors than workers.

The chief executive of Honeywell International Inc HON.N, Darius Adamczyk, said tax reform will "offer greater flexibility for Honeywell," adding that the industrial conglomerate would invest more cash in the United States to pay for dividends, mergers and acquisitions, share buybacks and paying down debt.

Amgen Inc AMGN.O CEO Robert Bradway said on Wednesday any tax reform would be incorporated into its capital allocation plans, noting the drugmaker expects to continue to raise its dividend and buy back shares.

The situation could be a replay of the massive 2004 repatriation “holiday” under President George W. Bush, in which 843 U.S.-based multinationals brought back $362 billion in overseas profits at a deeply slashed tax rate of 5.25 percent.

Most of that money went to stock buybacks and dividend increases. The tax break was called a costly failure in a 2011 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which found it cost the U.S. Treasury $3.3 billion in lost revenue and “produced no appreciable increase in U.S. jobs or domestic investment.”

Unlike the voluntary Bush program, Trump’s proposal calls for mandatory repatriation of an estimated $2.6 trillion in profits stashed offshore. It would impose two different rates: 3.5 percent on earnings invested in illiquid assets and 8.75 percent on cash and liquid assets. But the outcome would likely be similar to the Bush experience, said Goldman Sachs in a research note on Thursday.

Top Republicans have said legislation will not order companies to use tax reform windfalls to create jobs.

The White House had no immediate comment on the issue.

Even small companies, which pay the highest effective tax rate and would be the main beneficiaries of a Trump tax windfall, do not appear focused on hiring.

Reuters contacted the 100 largest companies by market value in the benchmark Russell 2000 Index of U.S. small and mid-cap stocks, as well as another 50 in that index that are not covered by securities analysts. None of the 17 companies that responded to Reuters mentioned boosting their headcount.

Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N would take a different tack to benefit shareholders with any tax windfall.

The biggest U.S. defense contractor is looking at front-loading pension contributions to take advantage of any lower corporate tax rates next year, Chief Financial Officer Bruce Tanner told analysts on a conference call this week.

Not all companies plan to give a tax windfall back to investors. Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc HLT.N CEO Christopher Nassetta said he expected the hotel industry to "hire more people," and invest more in real estate and equipment.

Reporting by Mike Stone; Additional reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch and Kevin Drawbaugh; Writing by Chris Sanders; Editing by Damon Darlin and Bill Rigby