The Depressing Truth About What Apple Should Do With Its Cash Stockpile

Apple has so much cash on hand that things like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s proposal for $97 billion worth of Apple acquisitions (Twitter! Sprint! Path!) are irresistable summer speculation. But the sad truth is contained within a parenthetical at the end of the piece: “Let’s put aside the thorny issue of how Apple can use its cash, much of which is abroad, without being taxed.”

This is money that Apple has deliberately stashed abroad precisely in order to avoid paying corporate income tax on. And the tax bill would not be small. The statutory federal corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, and I believe California charges an 8.84 percent corporate income tax rate on top of that. Given those realities the “rate of return” on finding ways to avoid paying the taxes is enormous. The smart thing for Apple to do is to keep the untaxed money right where it is, and then invest a lot of extra money on lobbying congress to enact a “repatriation tax holiday” allowing Apple to close the loop on its tax avoidance and bring the money back home. Having done that, Apple could think about kicking the money out as dividends, engaging in entertaining mega-mergers, buying Tim Cook a billion dollar birthday cake, or whatever they want. But the money’s not sitting there offshore and untaxed by accident. Not paying those taxes is, all on its own terms, an important business strategy.

At this point it’s a hoary cliché to note the need for corporate income tax reform, but Apple’s situation really brings it home. On the one hand, we raise very little money from the corporate income tax. On the other hand, the statutory rates are quite high so it’s very sensible for companies to go to great lengths to avoid paying them.