December 11, 2014
A month after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed leaked documents demonstrating that Luxembourg allowed Pepsi, IKEA, FedEx and 340 other corporations to use the country as a tax haven, ICIJ has now announced new evidence that Disney, Koch Industries and 33 additional companies are also in the game.
The new trove of leaked documents shows that Disney and Koch Industries have, like the other companies, obtained private tax rulings from Luxembourg’s Ministry of Finance that bless complex business and accounting structures shifting profits from countries where actual business is done into Luxembourg, and then in some cases into other countries.
The revelations further demonstrate the need to end the U.S. tax code rule allowing American corporations to defer paying U.S. income taxes on profits that they report to earn offshore. The ability to defer these taxes for years or forever creates a powerful incentive for corporations to use accounting gimmicks to make it appear as though profits are earned in countries where they won’t be taxed — like Luxembourg, thanks to the private tax rulings it hands out like candy to big corporations.
Ernst & Young advised both Disney and Koch Industries to set up a financial subsidiary in Luxembourg that lends money to the other subsidiaries, which then send their profits in the form of interest payments to the lender in Luxembourg.
Disney’s lending subsidiary in Luxembourg reported 1 billion Euros in profits from 2009 through 2013 and paid just 2.8 million Euros in income tax to Luxembourg, for an effective income tax rate of less than one percent.
ICIJ explains that Disney may use the “check-the-box” loophole in U.S. tax law, which allows corporations to simply assert (by checking a box on a form) whether its foreign-owned entities are separate corporations or merely branches of the U.S. company. This would allow Disney to tell the IRS that its payment to the Luxembourg lender is a deductible interest payment to a separate company, even while the Luxembourg lender tells its own government that it’s merely a branch of Disney receiving an internal company payment, which is not taxable. The result is that the profit is not taxed in any country.
The lending exists only on paper and the financial subsidiary is a shell company. It and four other subsidiaries of Disney’s in Luxembourg are all housed in one residential apartment and have one employee.
Koch Industries’ private tax ruling from Luxembourg’s Ministry of Finance blesses a tax-dodging scheme for its subsidiary Invista, a company that produces Lycra-brand fiber and Stainmaster-brand carpets. Invista publicly says it is headquartered in the U.S., but Koch owns it through a holding company incorporated in the Netherlands.
A Luxembourg subsidiary called Arteva facilitates loans from one subsidiary of Invista to another. Arteva reported profits of $269 million from 2010 through 2013 and paid just $6.4 million in income taxes to Luxembourg over that period, for an effective income tax rate of just 2 percent. Its highest effective rate in any one of those four years was just 4.15 percent. Like Disney, Koch may have exploited the check-the-box loophole to pull this off.
One section of Koch’s private tax ruling explains how $736 million would be shifted from one subsidiary to another until an American branch would become “both the debtor and creditor of the same debt, which is canceled at the level of the American branch.”
A huge amount of complex planning goes into these tax avoidance schemes. The article notes that Ernst & Young’s office in Luxembourg racked up $153 million in revenue last year, probably by peddling these tax dodges. A lot of this scheming could be brought to an end if Congress enacted tax reform ensuring that all profits of American corporations, regardless of where they are earned, are taxed when they are earned. If Disney and Koch Industries could not defer U.S. corporate income taxes on profits booked offshore, they would have little incentive to use these tactics to make profits appear to be earned in Luxembourg or other countries.