Will The Tax Man Catch The Big Techs?

by: Dana Blankenhorn

There are many risks in today's fully-priced tech companies, but one that's often dismissed is the tax man.

Anger is growing among policymakers in both Europe and the U.S. over the legal maneuvers that allow companies like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), among others, to limit their tax exposure.

It's one thing to emphasize that none of these companies are breaking the law. It's another to assume that the law will stand still.

Wired estimates that Apple alone has over $28 billion in deferred tax liabilities on its books. Compare this to the $44 billion the company pays out in dividends. It's a lot of money, but at least shareholders know what might happen down the road. Other investors don't.

The fact is Apple isn't alone here. Far from it. No multinational CFO worth their paycheck is unaware of the techniques being used here. They're common.

But laws can change. Loopholes can be closed.

This is most likely to start in Europe, where Ireland has been identified as a conduit for EC profits. Ireland denies it's a tax haven, saying its 12.5% corporate rate is "a competitive advantage in the fight for foreign direct investment," but Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who left the company decades ago, was also in Northern Ireland this week proposing that companies be taxed on all their income, that they be treated "just like individuals" for tax purposes.

The center of tax reform action in Europe is likely to be Switzerland, not Ireland, because that country is under a June 21 deadline to avoid sanctions on its taxing foreign earnings at a lower rate than domestic ones, a process called "ring fencing."

European politicians, including UK prime minister David Cameron, plan to make taxes a major subject at the coming G8 Summit in Northern Ireland. The EU plans to share bank account data continent-wide, and wants to extend that to Switzerland and other small European states that act as tax havens. Cameron, aware that most of the world's most notorious tax havens are former British protectorates, still plans to propose an automatic exchange of tax information among countries around the world at the Summit.

Those who think the U.S. is going to actively resist these moves, or that it can prevent change from happening, because Republicans oppose it and control one House of Congress, are likely to be in for a rude shock. It's time to scour your investments - especially your tech investments - to see which have accounted for new potential liabilities and which are waiting for the hammer to fall in order to tell shareholders.

Discount future earnings flows from the latter accordingly. I know what Apple's potential liability is. How about your investments?

Disclosure: I am long AAPL, GOOG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.