Google 2.4% Rate Shows How $60 Billion Lost to Tax Loopholes
By Jesse Drucker - Oct 21, 2010 3:00 AM PT
Google Inc. cut its taxes by $3.1 billion in the last three years using a technique that moves most of its foreign profits through Ireland and the Netherlands to Bermuda.
Google's income shifting -- involving strategies known to lawyers as the "Double Irish" and the "Dutch Sandwich" -- helped reduce its overseas tax rate to 2.4 percent, the lowest of the top five U.S. technology companies by market capitalization, according to regulatory filings in six countries.
The method takes advantage of Irish tax law to legally shuttle profits into and out of subsidiaries there, largely escaping the country's 12.5 percent income tax.
The earnings wind up in island havens that levy no corporate income taxes at all. Companies that use the Double Irish arrangement avoid taxes at home and abroad.
The tactics of Google and Facebook depend on "transfer pricing," paper transactions among corporate subsidiaries that allow for allocating income to tax havens while attributing expenses to higher-tax countries. Such income shifting costs the U.S. government as much as $60 billion in annual revenue
The Double Irish
As a strategy for limiting taxes, the Double Irish method is "very common at the moment, particularly with companies with intellectual property,"
Income shifting commonly begins when companies like Google sell or license the foreign rights to intellectual property developed in the U.S. to a subsidiary in a low-tax country. That means foreign profits based on the technology get attributed to the offshore unit, not the parent. Under U.S. tax rules, subsidiaries must pay "arm's length" prices for the rights -- or the amount an unrelated company would.
Because the payments contribute to taxable income, the parent company has an incentive to set them as low as possible. Cutting the foreign subsidiary's expenses effectively shifts profits overseas.
After three years of negotiations, Google received approval from the IRS in 2006 for its transfer pricing arrangement, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The IRS gave its consent in a secret pact known as an advanced pricing agreement. Google wouldn't discuss the price set under the arrangement, which licensed the rights to its search and advertising technology and other intangible property for Europe, the Middle East and Africa to a unit called Google Ireland Holdings, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Dublin subsidiary sells advertising globally and was credited by Google with 88 percent of its $12.5 billion in non-U.S. sales in 2009.
Allocating the revenue to Ireland helps Google avoid income taxes in the U.S., where most of its technology was developed.
The profits don't stay with the Dublin subsidiary, which reported pretax income of less than 1 percent of sales in 2008, according to Irish records. That's largely because it paid $5.4 billion in royalties to Google Ireland Holdings, which has its "effective centre of management" in Bermuda, according to company filings.
Avoid Irish Taxes
Tax planners call such an arrangement a Double Irish because it relies on two Irish companies. One pays royalties to use intellectual property, generating expenses that reduce Irish taxable income. The second collects the royalties in a tax haven like Bermuda, avoiding Irish taxes.
To steer clear of an Irish withholding tax, payments from Google's Dublin unit don't go directly to Bermuda. A brief detour to the Netherlands avoids that liability, because Irish tax law exempts certain royalties to companies in other EU- member nations. The fees first go to a Dutch unit, Google Netherlands Holdings B.V., which pays out about 99.8 percent of what it collects to the Bermuda entity, company filings show. The Amsterdam-based subsidiary lists no employees.
The Dutch Sandwich
Inserting the Netherlands stopover between two other units gives rise to the "Dutch Sandwich" nickname.
A lesser-appreciated aspect of Ireland's appeal is that it allows companies to shift income out of the country with minimal tax consequences, said Jim Stewart, a senior lecturer in finance at Trinity College's school of business in Dublin.
Once Google's non-U.S. profits hit Bermuda, they become difficult to track. The subsidiary managed there changed its legal form of organization in 2006 to become a so-called unlimited liability company. Under Irish rules, that means it's not required to disclose such financial information as income statements or balance sheets.