The company shifts money around the world to get the lowest tax rates possible. It's legal, but is it right?
Google (GOOG) loves to talk about the ways it makes money, but it stays mostly silent on one of its most profitable units: its tax lawyers.
Those lawyers have made Google and its shareholders oodles of money by devising ways to funnel profits out of high-tax countries and into island tax havens like Bermuda.
It's all perfectly legal -- though it does make some people skeptical of Google's "Don't be evil" mantra. And as a result, Google has cut taxes by $3.1 billion in three years and lowered its overseas tax rate to a jaw-dropping 2.4%, Bloomberg reports.
The numbers should make a shareholder proud. The U.S. tax rate for corporations is 35%. If Google actually paid that rate on all its earnings, its share price might be $100 lower, one analyst told Bloomberg.
"It's remarkable that Google's effective rate is that low," one tax economist told Bloomberg. "We know this company operates throughout the world mostly in high-tax countries where the average corporate rate is well over 20%."
Google's tax strategy helped it boost earnings by 26% last year through international tax benefits, Bloomberg reported. While other tech companies use similar strategies, Google is more aggressive and has been able to pay lower international taxes than Apple (AAPL), IBM (IBM) and Microsoft (MSFT). (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Money.)
So how does Google do it? By creating a subsidiary in a low-tax country and selling that unit the foreign rights to Google technology developed in the U.S. As a result, all foreign profits from that technology go to the low-taxed subsidiary.
Google decided to create a subsidiary in Ireland, Bloomberg reported. Google Ireland Holdings now has the foreign rights for Google's search and advertising for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
As a result, the Ireland office took credit for 88% of Google's international sales last year.
Why Ireland? Because in its desperation to attract big names, Ireland loosened rules to let companies move profits out of the country with little tax penalty. And the penalty gets even smaller if Google moves the money to the Netherlands.
So the payments go from Ireland to the Netherlands to Bermuda, Bloomberg reports. That's what the lawyers like to call a "Dutch sandwich." Yum.
This is not illegal. But is it ethical? As the U.S. struggles to pull out of a recession, is it fair for Google to island-hop its way out of paying more taxes? Google's overall effective tax rate was 22.2% last year.
One economics professor told Bloomberg that corporate profit shifting costs the U.S. government up to $60 billion a year in lost taxes.
Bloomberg found two opposing viewpoints. One manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers says Google is obligated to shareholders to minimize taxes, which it is doing.
But a college accounting professor who reviewed Google's tax disclosures said the company is "perpetrating evil under our noses."
"Who is it that paid for the underlying concept on which they built these billions of dollars of revenues?" the professor said. "It was paid for by the United States citizenry."
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