Some U.S. multinational companies are avoiding paying high U.S. taxes through relatively simple tax strategies. If a U.S. multination company generates part of its income in a foreign jurisdiction, the foreign income is not subject to U.S. taxes until it gets repatriated back to the US. Contrary to personal income tax, which is levied on all sources of income regardless of where the income is earned, only U.S-based income is subject to taxes for U.S. corporations. The foreign income earned is subject to US taxes once the money is transferred back to the U.S. for redistribution or reinvestment.

Therefore, U.S. citizens cannot shelter foreign income from U.S. taxes, but U.S. companies are able to do so.

Another tax strategy to shelter income from U.S. taxes is more dubious in nature where the objective is to attribute a higher percentage of the income to a foreign jurisdiction with low tax rate even when the income is not economically earned in the foreign jurisdiction.

The Pillar in the Cat-and-Mouse Strategy

Caterpillar is under intense scrutiny for shifting much of the profit from its lucrative replacement-parts business to a Swiss subsidiary where the tax rates are low. The strategy, which dates back to the late 1990s, has generated an employee lawsuit, a U.S. Senate investigation, and a federal criminal investigation that led raids on Caterpillar’s headquarters and two facilities in Illinois.

How large is the tax avoidance? According to a U.S. Senator (see the April request from Sen. Carl Levin, D., Mich., for the PCAOB to look into the tax avoidance matter), Caterpillar has deferred $2.4 billion in taxes under strategies devised by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

CtW, an investment group, wants to shake up the company’s audit committee following the terminator’s (machinery giant) offshore tax strategy. The investment group, has issued a public letter asking shareholders to vote against Caterpillar’s three board members because of inadequate oversight of tax strategy and dysfunctional monitoring of the external auditor. In the case of Caterpillar, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP happens to be both the external auditor and the  tax consultant!

The audit committee members of Caterpillar include

  • Daniel Dickinson, a private-equity executive
  • Dennis Muilenburg, Chairman and CEO of Boeing Co.
  • William Osborn, former Chairman and CEO of Northern Trust Corp.

Conflict or Efficiency

By serving as the tax consulting and external auditor, does PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP generate efficiencies for the company or is there a conflict of interest whereby the audit quality suffers because the external auditor is no longer an independent monitor of the company’s financial statements.   

Independent or Dependent

PricewaterhouseCoopers has been Caterpillar’s independent auditor since 1925, according to the 2017 proxy statements filed by Caterpillar, which means the big accounting firm has been with this client for almost a century! Can an auditor with a century long relationship with a client provide high quality audit assurance?

How much has the accounting firm earned from this company?

Audit services              Tax consulting             Total Fees

2016                                        $33 million                  $0.1 million                 $35 million

2015                                        $32 million                  $20 million                  $54 million

Why did tax consulting fees drop suddenly in 2016? Too much political heat?

If you use 2016 fees as a proxy for annual fees earned by the auditor for the prior years, which is an exaggerated assumption, PricewaterhouseCoopers has earned around $3 billion from the Terminator since 1925.

I wish we could buy shares of PricewaterhouseCoopers!

Is PricewaterhouseCoopers a tax consultant or an “external” auditor for Caterpillar? Does PricewaterhouseCoopers have the conviction to question accounting practices adopted by Caterpillar and confront questionable accounting practices in light of this money train?

Your guess is as good as mine…..

May 29, 2017

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