Mitchell’s Musings 4-9-2018: Seems Reasonable, But Isn’t

03 Apr 2018 4:08 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 4-9-2018: Seems Reasonable, But Isn’t

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Let’s start with some data points. As the charts below show, the U.S. ended the calendar year 2017 with gross liabilities to the world of $35.5 trillion.[1] But it held gross claims on the world of $27.6 trillion. The difference between U.S. liabilities to the world and U.S. assets abroad was $7.8 trillion, a negative net international investment position. As the charts also show, all these figures bounce around, but all have generally risen over the past decade (and before).


Current capacity limit on EPRN prevents charts from being included here. To see the two charts, go to:


Much of international investment involves portfolio investment, official reserves, and other such assets and liabilities that do not involve controlling ownership or real assets (such as real estate). Direct investment, however, does involve controlling ownership and real assets. The U.S. had such direct investments abroad to the tune of $8.9 trillion at the end of 2017. Foreign direct investment in the U.S. was also $8.9 trillion. In short, there is lots of investment, including direct investment, in both directions.

At the time of the recent tax cuts, you probably read news accounts such as this one:

President Donald Trump's new tax plan could cause a tidal wave of internationally held cash to flood back into the US. The repatriation tax holiday outlined in the plan, which has officially passed both chambers of Congress and is awaiting Trump's signature, is designed to incentivize US-based companies that do big business overseas to bring those profits back home. By Goldman Sachs' calculation, S&P 500 companies hold $920 billion of untaxed overseas cash, and the firm estimates that $250 billion of that would be repatriated. Looking at all US-based companies, Citigroup says there's a whopping $2.5 trillion of capital stashed internationally…[2]

The implication was that the tax system was inducing firms to arrange their affairs so that profits would appear abroad rather than in the U.S. and thus escape U.S. taxation. Clever lawyers and accountants put these arrangements together. That part of the story was undoubtedly true. It’s hardly controversial that firms seek to be “tax efficient.” If you change their tax incentives, the same clever lawyers and accountants will now advise firms to alter their arrangements. The advice could well be to repatriate some of the assets that were held abroad.

But what is the implication if they do? The assumption, particularly of the president, seemed to be that these were funds that would go into real investment in the U.S. There would be a real investment boom in the U.S. that would create lots of jobs, if only all that money abroad would return to the U.S. So let’s look at that idea.

When people talk about money stashed abroad, it sounds as if there was a vault stuffed with dollar bills somewhere across the sea. In fact, assets held abroad are largely investments in securities and claims of various types. For example, the assets could be claims on a financial institution (a bank) which in turn invests the assets around the world including in the U.S. And we know that at the end of the day in 2017, the U.S. had a net international debt of $7.8 trillion, as per the data and charts noted earlier. There is nothing in the new tax law that says that, as a first approximation, had the law been in effect in 2017, the net debt of the U.S. would have been any different (although as perhaps the gross assets and liabilities would have been different).

Would there have been more real investment in the U.S.? Let’s consider Apple, since it figured prominently in the discussion of tax avoidance:

When Apple’s efforts to reduce its taxes around the world came under fire in Congress a few years ago, CEO Tim Cook fired back. “We do not depend on tax gimmicks,” Cook said. “We do not stash money on some Caribbean island.” The first statement depends on the definition of a “gimmick.” Apple was certainly using loopholes and openings in different countries’ tax laws to minimize its own obligations. But he was telling the truth in saying the iPhone maker had no money stashed in the Caribbean. The company didn’t need to – its funds were stashed in subsidiaries incorporated in Ireland, but that, on paper at least, had no home country for tax purposes…[3]

Let’s suppose Apple really wanted to produce iPhones in, say, Detroit instead of contracting out the task to Chinese and other foreign manufacturers (as it does). Would the fact that it has made accounting arrangements so that its profits show up in Ireland – or anywhere else – have prevented it from opening a Detroit plant? A firm’s investment in a new plant does not have to be financed directly from accumulated past profits. It can borrow the necessary funds locally from financial institutions. And one suspects that if Apple wanted to finance its hypothetical Detroit plant out of its own past profits in Ireland, the same clever lawyers and accountants that made those profits show up in Ireland could find a way to funnel the funds to Detroit through some sort of dummy intermediary.

The reason Apple doesn’t produce the iPhones it sells in the U.S. in a Detroit plant is that it is cheaper to make them in places such as China and then import them into the U.S. Giving Apple tax incentives to make profits show up in the U.S. is unlikely to change that calculation. If it were the case that where profits show up determines production location, then iPhones would be produced in Ireland, not China. Researchers who have traced iPhone parts manufacturing and assembly have found production sites all over the world. But Ireland doesn’t appear on the list.[4]

In short, it may seem reasonable to think that if past profits are repatriated to the U.S., there will be more manufacturing in the U.S. by the firms affected. It may seem reasonable to think that where accounting profits are, so goes production. But, sadly, it just happens not to be so.



[1] Source:  




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