President-elect Donald Trump wants U.S. companies to bring trillions of dollars in offshore cash home, arguing the money could be used to fund a manufacturing renaissance. He has suggested that cutting taxes on companies' accumulated offshore earnings from the current 35 percent to 10 percent would persuade them to repatriate that income; as money returned, so would jobs.
In fact, the capital is more likely to benefit investors than job-seekers. It's not a shortage of funds that has held back job creation by U.S. companies. Apple, Microsoft, Pfizer and many others have raised huge amounts of cash, using low-interest debt, to buy back shares and boost dividends.
Asked what he would do with repatriated cash if the Trump administration slashed taxes on foreign profits, Cisco Systems chief executive Chuck Robbins said, "We do have various scenarios in terms of what we'd do, but you can assume we'll focus on the obvious ones - buybacks, dividends, and M&A activities."
Unlike other developed nations, the United States taxes corporate income globally, but it allows companies to defer paying tax on offshore earnings until they repatriate that income. As a result, U.S. companies have avoided U.S. taxes by stashing about $2.6 trillion offshore, a figure cited by Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation. The top five in order of overseas cash holdings as of Sept. 30 are Apple ($216 billion), Microsoft ($111 billion), Cisco ($60 billion), Oracle Corp. ($51 billion), and Google parent Alphabet Inc. ($48 billion).
The new administration will "bring back trillions of dollars from American businesses that is now parked overseas," Trump told the Detroit Economic Club as he laid out his economic plan in August. "This money will be reinvested in states like Michigan." At a campaign rally in January, he said: "We're going to get Apple to start building their damn computers and things in this country rather than other countries."
Corporate America last enjoyed a repatriation holiday in 2004, when the government temporarily reduced the rate.
Though the legislation expressly forbade companies from using the cash to buy back shares, various academic studies later showed that more than 90 percent of the repatriated profit was used for buybacks, dividends, and executive compensation.
This time around, some industries are more likely to plow repatriated cash into M&A. Ethan Lovell, a portfolio manger at Janus Capital Group, said he expects pharmaceutical firms to go shopping.
"The vast majority of companies that I speak with want to make acquisitions," he said.
It's also highly unlikely companies will shift meaningful production home.
Labor remains significantly cheaper elsewhere. Hourly compensation costs were $36.49 per worker in the United States in 2013, the Conference Board says.
The comparable cost in China was just $4.12 that year (the most recent available), even after rising more than sixfold over the preceding 10 years.