Report: Wal-Mart Evades Taxes
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owns more than $76 billion of assets through a web of units in offshore tax havens around the world, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the giant retailer’s annual report.
A new study has found Wal-Mart has at least 78 offshore subsidiaries and branches, more than 30 created since 2009 and none mentioned in U.S. securities filings. Overseas operations have helped the company cut more than $3.5 billion off its income tax bills in the past six years, its annual reports show.
The study, researched by the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union and published Wednesday in a report by Americans for Tax Fairness, found 90 percent of Wal-Mart’s overseas assets are owned by subsidiaries in Luxembourg and the Netherlands, two of the most popular corporate tax havens.
Units in Luxembourg — where the company has no stores — reported $1.3 billion in profits between 2010 and 2013 and paid tax at a rate of less than 1 percent, according to the report.
All of Wal-Mart’s roughly 3,500 stores in China, Central America, Britain, Brazil, Japan, South Africa and Chile appear to be owned through units in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Curacao and Luxembourg, according to the report from the advocacy group. The union conducted its research using publicly available documents filed in various countries by Wal-Mart and its subsidiaries.
Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman, called the report incomplete and “designed to mislead” by its union authors. He said the company has “processes in place to comply with applicable SEC and IRS rules, as well as the tax laws of each country where we operate.”
The union behind the study backs the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, a group that campaigns for wage increases and more predictable schedules. Wal-Mart has historically resisted unions and discourages employees from joining them.
Hargrove, the Wal-Mart spokesman, pointed to guidance issued by the SEC that permits companies to avoid disclosure of subsidiaries with significant “intercompany transactions.” He said Wal-Mart’s tax savings overseas was driven by lower rates in markets including Canada and Britain.
Companies such as Google, Apple and Starbucks have come under fire for avoiding billions of dollars of income taxes by attributing profits to mailbox subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions like Bermuda. The Group of Twenty has directed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to develop plans to crack down on such strategies.
The new Wal-Mart disclosures could expand the scope of international tax reform, which has often focused on technology companies that move profits offshore by assigning valuable patent rights to mailbox units.
“This report is continuing evidence that everybody has been engaging in cross-border tax avoidance,” said Stephen E. Shay, a professor at Harvard Law School and former deputy assistant secretary for international tax affairs for the Obama Treasury Department.
Nearly a decade ago, Wal-Mart ran into trouble over strategies to avoid state income taxes. It used a real estate investment trust to effectively pay rent to itself, generating big tax deductions, even though the rent payments never left the company. At least six states changed their tax laws after publicity about the tactics.
Since then, Wal-Mart has stepped up its use of offshore tax havens. It has created 20 new subsidiaries in Luxembourg alone since 2009, according to the report.
Wal-Mart employs a popular legal strategy in that country called a hybrid loan. It permits companies’ offshore units to take tax deductions for interest paid — typically on paper only — to their parents in the U.S. The parent, however, doesn’t include that interest as taxable income in the U.S.
The OECD has called for an end to the tax benefits of such loans. Luxembourg generated headlines last year after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed its role in cutting the tax bills of hundreds of multinationals.