Intellectual property has become a major tax-avoidance vehicle for multinationals. Front-page articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have detailed how IP-heavy companies like Apple, Google, and Big Pharma play games with their IP to avoid taxes on a massive scale. For example, Apple uses IP-based tax-avoidance strategies to reduce its effective tax rate to approximately 8%, well below the statutory 35% corporate tax rate (and well below most middle-class Americans’ tax rates).
Two characteristics of IP make it the ideal tax-avoidance vehicle. First, the uniqueness of every piece of IP makes its fair market value extremely hard to establish, allowing taxpayers to choose whatever valuations result in the least tax. Second, unlike workers or physical assets like factories or stores, IP can easily be moved to tax havens via mere paperwork.
But Starbucks is a bricks-and-mortar retailer dependent upon physical presence in high-tax countries. It wouldn’t seem to be in a position to use these IP-based tax tricks. Yet in an excellent, eye-opening paper, Edward Kleinbard (USC) delves into the strategies that Starbucks uses to substantially reduce its worldwide tax burden. Most interestingly, Starbucks puts IP like trademarks, proprietary roasting methods, operational expertise, and store trade dress into low-tax jurisdictions. Kleinbard cogently observes that the ability of a bricks-and-mortar retailer like Starbucks to play such games demonstrates how deep the flaws run in current U.S. and international tax policy.