Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Coca-Cola, Oracle, Intel Use Caymans to Avoid Taxes

Seagate Technology, the world’s largest maker of hard disk drives, is headquartered in Scotts Valley, California. Yet the documents it files with the Securities and Exchange Commission list its address on South Church Street in George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands.

Seagate is just one of the companies that may be affected by President Barack Obama’s proposal yesterday to raise about $190 billion over the next decade by outlawing techniques used by U.S. companies in offshore locations to avoid paying taxes. While the U.S. corporate tax rate is 35 percent, Seagate paid an effective tax rate of 5 percent in the year ended June 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Caymans have no corporate income tax for companies incorporated there. The Caribbean island has helped scores of U.S. companies, including Coca-Cola Co. and Oracle Corp., to legally avoid billions in tax payments to the U.S. government, says U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan.

“Our Main Street businesses are working hard during this economic downturn to pay their fair share of taxes,” says Dorgan, 66, a North Dakota Democrat. “Some of the country’s largest corporations are using these loopholes to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. It is my hope that the Congress will quickly take action to pull the plug on tax breaks that subsidize runaway plants that move U.S. jobs overseas.”

Largest Companies

One quarter of the 100 largest contractors with the U.S. federal government, including Altria Group Inc. and Tyco International Ltd have had subsidiaries in the Caymans, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. At least 10 of the 30 companies listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average have had units with addresses in the Caymans.

As of November 2007, 378 U.S. publicly traded companies had at least one significant subsidiary in the Cayman Islands, a GAO study found. Altria, Tyco, Coke and Oracle still have subsidiaries in the Caymans, according to their most recent SEC filings. Seagate lists its headquarters in Grand Cayman.

One of the Dow 30 companies using offshore sites to reduce its U.S. taxes is Santa Clara, California-based Intel Corp., the world’s largest chipmaker.

Intel’s then vice president of tax, licensing and customs, Robert Perlman told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in March 1999 that Intel would have been better off incorporating in the Cayman Islands when it was founded in 1968.

“Our tax code competitively disadvantages multinationals simply because the parent is a U.S. corporation,” Perlman testified.

‘The Details’

Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said yesterday his company is reviewing the president’s speech on offshore tax havens. “We’re studying the Obama proposal,” Mulloy said. “Particularly with taxes, the devil’s in the details.”

Intel pays U.S. taxes on interest earned by its Cayman Island subsidiaries, Mulloy said.

Seagate spokesman Brian Ziel said yesterday that his company incorporated in the Caymans to reduce its taxes. “The competitive benefits relate both to taxes saved on certain income earned outside of the United States and the ability to efficiently deploy assets around the globe to remain competitive,” he said.

Eighty-five percent of Seagate’s employees work outside the U.S. and more than 70 percent of the company’s revenue comes from sales overseas, Ziel said.

“Officially, our administrative headquarters is in the Caymans,” Ziel said. “That’s how it’s listed in our annual report.”

18,857 Cayman Corporations

Altria spokesman Bill Phelps said his company is in the process of dissolving its Cayman subsidiary. Coke spokeswoman Kerry Kerr said, “We don’t comment on tax strategies, for competitive purposes.”

Tyco’s Paul Fitzhenry and Oracle spokeswoman Karen Tillman didn’t return calls requesting comment.

A five-story office building on South Church Street in the Caymans serves as the official address for 18,857 corporations. That building, called Ugland House, is listed in SEC filings as Seagate’s headquarters. About half those Cayman companies had billing addresses in the U.S., according to a 2008 GAO study.

President Obama referred to Ugland House yesterday.

“On the campaign, I used to talk about the outrage of a building in the Cayman Islands that had over 12,000 businesses claim this building as their headquarters,” Obama said. “And I’ve said before, either this is the largest building in the world or the largest tax scam. And I think the American people know which it is: The kind of tax scam that we need to end.”

Maples and Calder, the law firm that occupies all of Ugland House in Grand Cayman, said Obama is mistaken.

No Financial Misconduct

“I’m sorry to disappoint anyone, but our office is neither the largest building in the world nor a center of financial misconduct,” said Charles Jennings, joint managing partner of Maples and Calder.

“Having a registered office address in the Cayman Islands is driven by commercial considerations, not by tax avoidance,” Jennings said. “It allows companies to raise capital and conduct global business.”

The firm, which provides services for the corporations that use its address, has incorporated more than 6,000 new companies over the past five years. Back in 2004, the building served as home to 12,748 companies using the same address in the Caymans, a British crown colony 150 miles south of Cuba.

Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., whose corporate headquarters is in Coral Gables, Florida, lists another address -- Walker House on Mary Street in George Town, Grand Cayman -- in its SEC filings. That’s around the corner from Ugland House.

Del Monte’s effective tax rate for 2008 was 3 percent, up from 1 percent the year before. Del Monte spokeswoman Vidya Samsundar had no immediate comment on why the company is incorporated in the Caymans.