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Trump Administration Considering Halting Sales of Aircraft Parts to China

The Trump administration is considering halting to China the sale of an aircraft engine produced in part by General Electric, two people familiar with the discussions said, part of a broader effort to limit the flow of technology there that could one day give Beijing an economic and security edge.

Top Trump administration officials will discuss whether to prevent the sale at a cabinet meeting on Feb. 28, these people said. That meeting will encompass other restrictions on China, including whether to proceed with a rule change that would further curtail the ability of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, to have access to American technology.

The aircraft license review was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration has been increasingly wary of China’s economic and military ambitions, including a strategy to fuse its defense and commercial economies known as civil-military fusion.

Chinese industrial plans like Made In China 2025 have promoted dual-use technologies like aviation, automation and information technology to benefit both the Chinese economy and its military abilities.

China’s effort to develop airplanes on par with international competitors like Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier have long fallen short.

Instead, CFM, the jet-engine joint venture of General Electric and Safran of France, has been providing engines to China for years as part of that country’s effort to build up its jetliner industry.

The United States licenses for the joint venture to ship engines to China date to 2014. The most recent license was issued in March 2019. The licenses are for engines used in test-flight programs by the Chinese aircraft maker Comac. Each license is for a few engines, a model called the LEAP 1C.

The Commerce Department had been reviewing the joint venture’s license, but the decision on whether to continue allowing the technology to be sold to China has now been kicked up to cabinet members.

The plane that would use the CFM engines is scheduled to go into passenger service in 2021.

China, aviation experts say, has been able to make most of the individual components for advanced jet aircraft. But the bigger challenge is integrating complicated technologies into complex mechanical and digital systems for engines and avionics.

That integration, they say, is more difficult to build or reverse engineer, and copy.

But officials in the Trump administration and elsewhere fear that China might eventually develop the ability to reverse engineer G.E.’s technology.

Concerns have risen among officials in the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the State Department about whether the United States should be supporting China’s efforts to develop indigenous aircraft.

Stopping such licenses, however, would be a big financial hit to companies like G.E.

Officials also plan to discuss at the Feb. 28 policy meeting whether to expand the scope of their restrictions on Huawei.

The administration placed the company on a blacklist last May that prevented products made in America from being shipped to the country. But many of Huawei’s suppliers are global companies, and companies like Micron and Qualcomm instead switched to selling the Chinese company products from their overseas operations.

The rule change would clamp down on shipments of products made overseas with American components, so that only foreign-made products with less than 10 percent of American parts could be shipped to the company, down from 25 percent of specific types of restricted content before.

Some officials in the Defense Department had pushed back against those changes, arguing that they could undermine American technological development by cutting down on a vast source of revenue that the tech industry depends on to fund its research and development. The American military buys much of the technology that goes into military devices from the private sector.

But recently, other Pentagon officials including Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, and John C. Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, spoke up to overrule those objections, with the support of some officials in the Commerce Department.

On Friday, Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, introduced legislation that would accomplish the same change.

“We know Huawei is supported and controlled by the communist regime in Beijing, which continues to violate human rights and steal our data, technology and intellectual property,” he said. “Companies in the United States should not be allowed to sell to Huawei, and my legislation will further restrict their ability.”

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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NYT > Business > Economy

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It’s Not Just Software: New Safety Risks Under Scrutiny on Boeing’s 737 Max

Even as Boeing inches closer to getting the 737 Max back in the air, new problems with the plane are emerging that go beyond the software that played a role in two deadly crashes.

As part of the work to return the Max to service, the company and regulators have scrutinized every aspect of the jet, uncovering new potential design flaws.

At the request of the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing conducted an internal audit in December to determine whether it had accurately assessed the dangers of key systems given new assumptions about how long it might take pilots to respond to emergencies, according to a senior engineer at Boeing and three people familiar with the matter.

Among the most pressing issues discovered were previously unreported concerns with the wiring that helps control the tail of the Max.

The company is looking at whether two bundles of critical wiring are too close together and could cause a short circuit. A short in that area could lead to a crash if pilots did not respond correctly, the people said. Boeing is still trying to determine whether that scenario could actually occur on a flight and, if so, whether it would need to separate the wire bundles in the roughly 800 Max jets that have already been built. The company says that the fix, if needed, is relatively simple.

The company informed the F.A.A. about the potential vulnerability last month, and Boeing’s new chief executive discussed possible changes to the wiring on an internal conference call last week, according to one of the people and the Boeing engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The company may eventually need to look into whether the same problem exists on the 737 NG, the predecessor to the Max. There are currently about 6,800 of those planes in service.

The senior Boeing engineer said that finding such problems and fixing them was not unusual and not particular to the Max or to Boeing.

The emergence of new troubles with the Max threatens to extend a crisis that is consuming one of America’s most influential companies and disrupting the global aviation business. The Max has been grounded since March, after two crashes killed 346 people. The crashes were caused in part by new software on the Max, MCAS, which triggered erroneously and sent the planes into nose dives. Boeing has developed a fix for the software, but it has not yet been approved, and the process of returning the plane to service has taken much longer than Boeing expected.

The Max is Boeing’s most important plane, with about 5,000 ordered by airlines around the world. But as the grounding has dragged on, Boeing said it would temporarily shut down its 737 factory, jolting thousands of suppliers and stoking the concern of President Trump.

Boeing abruptly fired its chief executive late last month after he alienated the F.A.A. and airline customers. His successor is now contending with the fallout, as Boeing’s share price has fallen by 21 percent and the company faces tens of billions of dollars in charges related to the grounding.

Regulators have suggested that the Max could be approved to fly again by the spring, a timetable that could still hold. The company says that even if it needs to fix the wiring issue, it would only take one to two hours per plane to separate the wiring bundles on the Max using a clamp.

“We are working closely with the F.A.A. and other regulators on a robust and thorough certification process to ensure a safe and compliant design,” Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing spokesman, said in a statement. “We identified these issues as part of that rigorous process, and we are working with the F.A.A. to perform the appropriate analysis. It would be premature to speculate as to whether this analysis will lead to any design changes.”

Investigations by international regulators into the cause of the two Max crashes determined that pilots of those flights did not respond as quickly or effectively as Boeing and the F.A.A., using accepted industry standards, presumed they would when designing and evaluating the MCAS software.

So in developing a software update for the Max, Boeing and the F.A.A. recognized that the previous industry assumptions should be changed, and that they needed to consider what would happen if it took crews much longer to act in the face of emergencies.

Using that new set of assumptions about pilot reactions, Boeing discovered that if two wire bundles placed close together toward the rear of the plane caused an electrical short, it could lead to a catastrophic accident. The wiring connects to the motor that controls the stabilizer, the horizontal fin on a plane’s tail, sending signals from the flight control computer that can push the nose down or lift it up.

If pilots did not recognize the problem and quickly take appropriate action, the plane could go into a nose dive, the senior Boeing engineer said. Under those circumstances, a short could bring a plane down in the same way that the MCAS software did on both doomed flights, forcing the stabilizer’s motor to run uncontrollably.

Boeing is still working to determine how likely it is that the wires could actually short circuit. The company does not want to make changes to the plane’s wiring if it doesn’t have to, fearing that additional damage could be done during a repair.

The engines on the Max have also become a focus of scrutiny for regulators. CFM International, the joint venture between General Electric and Safran that manufactures the engines, has told the F.A.A. it discovered a possible weakness in one of the engines’ rotors, which could cause the part to shatter. The likelihood of that failure is remote and regulators aren’t requiring an immediate fix, though they are looking to require that airlines inspect as many Max engines as possible before the plane returns to service, an F.A.A. official said.

Boeing also recently told the F.A.A. that it had discovered a manufacturing problem that left the plane’s engines vulnerable to a lightning strike.

While assembling the Max, workers at Boeing’s Renton, Wash., factory had ground down the outer shell of a panel that sits atop the engine housing in an effort to ensure a better fit into the plane. In doing so, they inadvertently removed the coating that insulates the panel from a lightning strike, taking away a crucial protection for the fuel tank and fuel lines. The F.A.A. is developing a directive that will require the company to restore lightning protection to the engine panel and Boeing is already in the process of resolving the issue.

“The F.A.A. and Boeing are analyzing certain findings from a recent review of the proposed modifications to the Boeing 737 MAX,” an F.A.A. spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said in a statement. “As part of its continuing oversight, the agency will ensure that all safety-related issues identified during this process are addressed before the aircraft is approved for return to passenger service.”

The new issues pose additional challenges for Boeing’s leadership. Late last month, the company’s board fired the chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg. He is being replaced on an interim basis by Greg Smith, the former chief financial officer. Next week, David Calhoun, until recently the nonexecutive chairman of Boeing’s board, will take over as chief executive.

On an internal conference call last Thursday, the question of changing the wiring on the Max came up, according to the senior Boeing engineer and another person familiar with the matter. At one point, a Boeing employee asked about whether the fix would need to be made to every plane in the fleet if the issue was found to be low risk. Mr. Smith replied that if changes were needed, they would have to be comprehensive.

Mr. Smith’s sober response served as an immediate contrast to Mr. Muilenburg, who repeatedly made overly optimistic projections about what was needed to get the Max back into service.

Boeing was already confronting a number of problems with the 737 Max and its predecessor.

In recent simulator tests with crews from American, Southwest and United Airlines as well as Aeromexico, many pilots did not use the prescribed emergency procedures to handle problems with the flights, raising the possibility that regulators could mandate flight simulator training or change the procedures before clearing the plane to fly. The F.A.A. is evaluating Boeing’s analysis of the testing.

Still, there are signs that Boeing is making progress toward getting the Max flying again. Regulators from Europe plan to fly to Seattle this week to test the new software in a flight simulator, a sign that international authorities believe the company is far enough along that its fix is ready for serious evaluation, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Government officials believe that the plane may be cleared for a certification test flight as soon as this month, where the company must demonstrate the plane meets all the safety requirements. The flight — the regulator’s final exam for the Max — is a significant milestone and one of the last hurdles the company needs to clear for regulators to lift the grounding.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are currently planning to use the Max for commercial flights in April, while United Airlines has scheduled Max flights for June.

“Our highest priority is ensuring the 737 Max meets all safety and regulatory requirements before it returns to service,” said Mr. Johndroe, the Boeing spokesman.

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How Big Companies Won New Tax Breaks From the Trump Administration

The overhaul of the federal tax law in 2017 was the signature legislative achievement of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.

The biggest change to the tax code in three decades, the law slashed taxes for big companies, part of an effort to coax them to invest more in the United States and to discourage them from stashing profits in overseas tax havens.

Corporate executives, major investors and the wealthiest Americans hailed the tax cuts as a once-in-a-generation boon not only to their own fortunes but also to the United States economy.

But big companies wanted more — and, not long after the bill became law in December 2017, the Trump administration began transforming the tax package into a greater windfall for the world’s largest corporations and their shareholders. The tax bills of many big companies have ended up even smaller than what was anticipated when the president signed the bill.

One consequence is that the federal government may collect hundreds of billions of dollars less over the coming decade than previously projected. The budget deficit has jumped more than 50 percent since Mr. Trump took office and is expected to top $1 trillion in 2020, partly as a result of the tax law.

Laws like the 2017 tax cuts are carried out by federal agencies that first must formalize them via rules and regulations. The process of writing the rules, conducted largely out of public view, can determine who wins and who loses.

Starting in early 2018, senior officials in President Trump’s Treasury Department were swarmed by lobbyists seeking to insulate companies from the few parts of the tax law that would have required them to pay more. The crush of meetings was so intense that some top Treasury officials had little time to do their jobs, according to two people familiar with the process.

The lobbyists targeted a pair of major new taxes that were supposed to raise hundreds of billions of dollars from companies that had been avoiding taxes in part by claiming their profits were earned outside the United States.

The blitz was led by a cross section of the world’s largest companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Credit Suisse, General Electric, United Technologies, Barclays, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, UBS, IBM, Kraft Heinz, Kimberly-Clark, News Corporation, Chubb, ConocoPhillips, HSBC and the American International Group.

Thanks in part to the chaotic manner in which the bill was rushed through Congress — a situation that gave the Treasury Department extra latitude to interpret a law that was, by all accounts, sloppily written — the corporate lobbying campaign was a resounding success.

Image
Credit…Jon Elswick/Associated Press

Through a series of obscure regulations, the Treasury carved out exceptions to the law that mean many leading American and foreign companies will owe little or nothing in new taxes on offshore profits, according to a review of the Treasury’s rules, government lobbying records, and interviews with federal policymakers and tax experts. Companies were effectively let off the hook for tens if not hundreds of billions of taxes that they would have been required to pay.

“Treasury is gutting the new law,” said Bret Wells, a tax law professor at the University of Houston. “It is largely the top 1 percent that will disproportionately benefit — the wealthiest people in the world.”

It is the latest example of the benefits of the Republican tax package flowing disproportionately to the richest of the rich. Even a tax break that was supposed to aid poor communities — an initiative called “opportunity zones” — is being used in part to finance high-end developments in affluent neighborhoods, at times benefiting those with ties to the Trump administration.

Of course, companies didn’t get everything they wanted, and Brian Morgenstern, a Treasury spokesman, defended the department’s handling of the tax rules. “No particular taxpayer or group had any undue influence at any time in the process,” he said.

Ever since the birth of the modern federal income tax in 1913, companies have been concocting ways to avoid it.

In the late 1990s, American companies accelerated their efforts to claim that trillions of dollars of profits they earned in high-tax places like the United States, Japan or Germany were actually earned in low- or no-tax places like Luxembourg, Bermuda or Ireland.

Google, Apple, Cisco, Pfizer, Merck, Coca-Cola, Facebook and many others have deployed elaborate techniques that let the companies pay taxes at far less than the 35 percent corporate tax rate in the United States that existed before the 2017 changes. Their playful nicknames — like Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich — made them sound benign.

The Obama administration and lawmakers from both parties have tried to combat this profit shifting, but their efforts mostly stalled.

When President Trump and congressional Republicans assembled an enormous tax-cut package in 2017, they pitched it in part as a grand bargain: Companies would get the deep tax cuts that they had spent years clamoring for, but the law would also represent a long-overdue effort to fight corporate tax avoidance and the shipment of jobs overseas.

“The situation where companies are actually encouraged to move overseas and keep their profits overseas makes no sense,” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said on the Senate floor in November 2017.

Republicans were racing to secure a legislative victory during Mr. Trump’s first year in office — a period marked by the administration’s failure to repeal Obamacare and an embarrassing procession of political blunders. Sweeping tax cuts could give Republicans a jolt of much-needed momentum heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

To speed things along, Republicans used a congressional process known as “budget reconciliation,” which blocked Democrats from filibustering and allowed Republicans to pass the bill with a simple majority. But to qualify for that parliamentary green light, the net cost of the bill — after accounting for different tax cuts and tax increases — had to be less than $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The bill’s cuts totaled $5.5 trillion. The corporate income tax rate shrank to 21 percent from 35 percent, and companies also won a tax break on the trillions in profits brought home from offshore.

To close the gap between the $5.5 trillion in cuts and the maximum price tag of $1.5 trillion, the package sought to raise new revenue by eliminating deductions and introducing new taxes.

Two of the biggest new taxes were supposed to apply to multinational corporations, and lawmakers bestowed them with easy-to-pronounce acronyms — BEAT and GILTI — that belie their complexity.

BEAT stands for the base erosion and anti-abuse tax. It was aimed largely at foreign companies with major operations in the United States, some of which had for years minimized their United States tax bills by shifting money between American subsidiaries and their foreign parent companies.

Instead of paying taxes in the United States, companies send the profits to countries with lower tax rates.

The BEAT aimed to make that less lucrative. Some payments that companies sent to their foreign affiliates would face a new 10 percent tax.

The other big measure was called GILTI: global intangible low-taxed income.

To reduce the benefit companies reaped by claiming that their profits were earned in tax havens, the law imposed an additional tax of up to 10.5 percent on some offshore earnings.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, the congressional panel that estimates the impacts of tax changes, predicted that the BEAT and GILTI would bring in $262 billion over a decade — roughly enough to fund the Treasury Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute for 10 years.

Sitting in the Oval Office on Dec. 22, 2017, Mr. Trump signed the tax cuts into law. It was — and remains — the president’s most significant legislative achievement.

From the start, the new taxes were pocked with loopholes.

In the BEAT, for example, Senate Republicans hoped to avoid a revolt by large companies. They wrote the law so that any payments an American company made to a foreign affiliate for something that went into a product — as opposed to, say, interest payments on loans — were excluded from the tax.

Let’s say an American pharmaceutical company sells pills in the United States. The pills are manufactured by a subsidiary in Ireland, and the American parent pays the Irish unit for the pills before they are sold to the public. Those payments mean that the company’s profits in the United States, where taxes are relatively high, go down; profits in tax-friendly Ireland go up.

Because such payments to Ireland wouldn’t be taxed, some companies that had been the most aggressive at shifting profits into offshore havens were spared the full brunt of the BEAT.

Other companies, like General Electric, were surprised to be hit by the new tax, thinking it applied only to foreign multinationals, according to Pat Brown, who had been G.E.’s top tax expert.

Mr. Brown, now the head of international tax policy at the accounting and consulting firm PwC, said on a podcast this year that the Trump administration should bridge the gap between expectations about the tax law and how it was playing out in reality. He lobbied the Treasury on behalf of G.E.

“The question,” he said, “is how creative and how expansive is Treasury and the I.R.S. able to be.”

Almost immediately after Mr. Trump signed the bill, companies and their lobbyists — including G.E.’s Mr. Brown — began a full-court pressure campaign to try to shield themselves from the BEAT and GILTI.

The Treasury Department had to figure out how to carry out the hastily written law, which lacked crucial details.

Chip Harter was the Treasury official in charge of writing the rules for the BEAT and GILTI. He had spent decades at PwC and the law firm Baker McKenzie, counseling companies on the same sorts of tax-avoidance arrangements that the new law was supposed to discourage.

Starting in January 2018, he and his colleagues found themselves in nonstop meetings — roughly 10 a week at times — with lobbyists for companies and industry groups.

The Organization for International Investment — a powerful trade group for foreign multinationals like the Swiss food company Nestlé and the Dutch chemical maker LyondellBasell — objected to a Treasury proposal that would have prevented companies from using a complex currency-accounting maneuver to avoid the BEAT.

The group’s lobbyists were from PwC and Baker McKenzie, Mr. Harter’s former firms, according to public lobbying disclosures. One of them, Pam Olson, was the top Treasury tax official in the George W. Bush administration. (Mr. Morgenstern, the Treasury spokesman, said Mr. Harter didn’t meet with PwC while the rules were being written.)

This month, the Treasury issued the final version of some of the BEAT regulations. The Organization for International Investment got what it wanted.

One of the most effective campaigns, with the greatest financial consequence, was led by a small group of large foreign banks, including Credit Suisse and Barclays.

American regulators require international banks to ensure that their United States divisions are financially equipped to absorb big losses in a crisis. To meet those requirements, foreign banks lend the money to their American outposts. Those loans accrue interest. Under the BEAT, the interest that the American units paid to their European parents would often be taxed.

“Foreign banks should not be penalized by the U.S. tax laws for complying” with regulations, said Briget Polichene, chief executive of the Institute of International Bankers, whose members include many of the world’s largest banks.

Banks flooded the Treasury Department with lobbyists and letters.

Late last year, Mr. Harter went to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and told him about the plan to give the banks a break. Mr. Mnuchin — a longtime banking executive before joining the Trump administration — signed off on the new exemptions, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A few months later, the tax-policy office handed another victory to the foreign banks, ruling that an even wider range of bank payments would be exempted.

Among the lobbyists who successfully pushed the banks’ case in private meetings with senior Treasury officials was Erika Nijenhuis of the law firm Cleary Gottlieb. Her client was the Institute of International Bankers.

In September 2019, Ms. Nijenhuis took off her lobbying hat and joined the Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy, which was still writing the rules governing the tax law.

Some tax experts said that the Treasury had no legal authority to exempt the bank payments from the BEAT; only Congress had that power. The Trump administration created the exception “out of whole cloth,” said Mr. Wells, the University of Houston professor.

Even inside the Treasury, the ruling was controversial. Some officials told Mr. Harter — the senior official in charge of the international rules — that the department lacked the power, according to people familiar with the discussions. Mr. Harter dismissed the objections.

Officials at the Joint Committee on Taxation have calculated that the exemptions for international banks could reduce by up to $50 billion the revenue raised by the BEAT.

Over all, the BEAT is likely to collect “a small fraction” of the $150 billion of new tax revenue that was originally projected by Congress, said Thomas Horst, who advises companies on their overseas tax arrangements. He came to that conclusion after reviewing the tax disclosures in more than 140 annual reports filed by multinationals.

Mr. Morgenstern, the Treasury spokesman, said: “We thoroughly reviewed these issues internally and are fully comfortable that we have the legal authority for the conclusions reached in these regulations.” He said Ms. Nijenhuis was not involved in crafting the BEAT rules.

He also said the Treasury decided that changing the rules for foreign banks was appropriate.

“We were responsive to job creators,” he said.

The lobbying surrounding the GILTI was equally intense — and, once again, large companies won valuable concessions.

Back in 2017, Republicans said the GILTI was meant to prevent companies from avoiding American taxes by moving their intellectual property overseas.

In the pharmaceutical and tech industries in particular, profits are often tied to patents. Companies had sold the rights to their patents to subsidiaries in offshore tax havens. The companies then imposed steep licensing fees on their American units. The sleight-of-hand transactions reduced profits in the United States and left them in places like Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.

But after the law was enacted, large multinationals in industries like consumer products discovered that the GILTI tax applied to them, too. That threatened to cut into their windfalls from the corporate tax rate’s falling to 21 percent from 35 percent.

Lobbyists for Procter & Gamble and other companies turned to lawmakers for help. They asked members of the Senate Finance Committee to tell Treasury officials that they hadn’t intended the GILTI to affect their industries. It was a simple but powerful strategy: Because the Treasury was required to consider congressional intent when writing the tax rules, such explanations could sway the outcome.

Several senators then met with Mr. Mnuchin to discuss the rules.

One lobbyist, Michael Caballero, had been a senior Treasury official in the Obama administration. His clients included Credit Suisse and the industrial conglomerate United Technologies. He met repeatedly with Treasury and White House officials and pushed them to modify the rules so that big companies hit by the GILTI wouldn’t lose certain tax deductions.

In essence, the “high-tax exception” that Mr. Caballero was proposing would allow companies to deduct expenses that they incurred in their overseas operations from their American profits — lowering their United States tax bills.

Other companies jumped on the bandwagon. News Corporation, Liberty Mutual, Anheuser-Busch, Comcast and P.&G. wrote letters or dispatched lobbyists to argue for the high-tax exception.

After months of meetings with lobbyists, the Treasury announced in June 2019 that it was creating a version of the exception that the companies had sought.

Two years after the tax cuts became law, their impact is becoming clear.

Companies continue to shift hundreds of billions of dollars to overseas tax havens, ensuring that huge sums of corporate profits remain out of reach of the United States government.

The Internal Revenue Service is collecting tens of billions of dollars less in corporate taxes than Congress projected, inflating the tax law’s 13-figure price tag.

This month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that the United States in 2018 experienced the largest drop in tax revenue of any of the group’s 36 member countries. The United States also had by far the largest budget deficit of any of those countries.

In the coming days, the Treasury is likely to complete its last round of rules carrying out the tax cuts. Big companies have spent this fall trying to win more.

In September, Chris D. Trunck, the vice president for tax at Owens Corning, the maker of insulation and roofing materials, wrote to the I.R.S. He pushed the Treasury to tinker with the GILTI rules in a way that would preserve hundreds of millions of dollars of tax benefits that Owens Corning had accumulated from settling claims that it poisoned employees and others with asbestos.

The same month, the underwear manufacturer Hanes sent its own letter to Mr. Mnuchin. The letter, from Bryant Purvis, Hanes’s vice president of global tax, urged Mr. Mnuchin to broaden the high-tax exception so that more companies could take advantage of it.

Otherwise, Mr. Purvis warned, “the GILTI regime will become an impediment to U.S. companies and their ability to not only compete globally as a general matter, but also their ability to remain U.S.-headquartered if they are to maintain the overall fiscal health of their business.”

The implied threat was clear: If the Treasury didn’t further chip away at the new tax, companies like Hanes, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., might have no choice but to move their headquarters overseas.

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NYT > Business > Economy

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How Big Companies Won New Tax Breaks From the Trump Administration

The overhaul of the federal tax law in 2017 was the signature legislative achievement of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.

The biggest change to the tax code in three decades, the law slashed taxes for big companies, part of an effort to coax them to invest more in the United States and to discourage them from stashing profits in overseas tax havens.

Corporate executives, major investors and the wealthiest Americans hailed the tax cuts as a once-in-a-generation boon not only to their own fortunes but also to the United States economy.

But big companies wanted more — and, not long after the bill became law in December 2017, the Trump administration began transforming the tax package into a greater windfall for the world’s largest corporations and their shareholders. The tax bills of many big companies have ended up even smaller than what was anticipated when the president signed the bill.

One consequence is that the federal government may collect hundreds of billions of dollars less over the coming decade than previously projected. The budget deficit has jumped more than 50 percent since Mr. Trump took office and is expected to top $1 trillion in 2020, partly as a result of the tax law.

Laws like the 2017 tax cuts are carried out by federal agencies that first must formalize them via rules and regulations. The process of writing the rules, conducted largely out of public view, can determine who wins and who loses.

Starting in early 2018, senior officials in President Trump’s Treasury Department were swarmed by lobbyists seeking to insulate companies from the few parts of the tax law that would have required them to pay more. The crush of meetings was so intense that some top Treasury officials had little time to do their jobs, according to two people familiar with the process.

The lobbyists targeted a pair of major new taxes that were supposed to raise hundreds of billions of dollars from companies that had been avoiding taxes in part by claiming their profits were earned outside the United States.

The blitz was led by a cross section of the world’s largest companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Credit Suisse, General Electric, United Technologies, Barclays, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, UBS, IBM, Kraft Heinz, Kimberly-Clark, News Corporation, Chubb, ConocoPhillips, HSBC and the American International Group.

Thanks in part to the chaotic manner in which the bill was rushed through Congress — a situation that gave the Treasury Department extra latitude to interpret a law that was, by all accounts, sloppily written — the corporate lobbying campaign was a resounding success.

Image
Credit…Jon Elswick/Associated Press

Through a series of obscure regulations, the Treasury carved out exceptions to the law that mean many leading American and foreign companies will owe little or nothing in new taxes on offshore profits, according to a review of the Treasury’s rules, government lobbying records, and interviews with federal policymakers and tax experts. Companies were effectively let off the hook for tens if not hundreds of billions of taxes that they would have been required to pay.

“Treasury is gutting the new law,” said Bret Wells, a tax law professor at the University of Houston. “It is largely the top 1 percent that will disproportionately benefit — the wealthiest people in the world.”

It is the latest example of the benefits of the Republican tax package flowing disproportionately to the richest of the rich. Even a tax break that was supposed to aid poor communities — an initiative called “opportunity zones” — is being used in part to finance high-end developments in affluent neighborhoods, at times benefiting those with ties to the Trump administration.

Of course, companies didn’t get everything they wanted, and Brian Morgenstern, a Treasury spokesman, defended the department’s handling of the tax rules. “No particular taxpayer or group had any undue influence at any time in the process,” he said.

Ever since the birth of the modern federal income tax in 1913, companies have been concocting ways to avoid it.

In the late 1990s, American companies accelerated their efforts to claim that trillions of dollars of profits they earned in high-tax places like the United States, Japan or Germany were actually earned in low- or no-tax places like Luxembourg, Bermuda or Ireland.

Google, Apple, Cisco, Pfizer, Merck, Coca-Cola, Facebook and many others have deployed elaborate techniques that let the companies pay taxes at far less than the 35 percent corporate tax rate in the United States that existed before the 2017 changes. Their playful nicknames — like Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich — made them sound benign.

The Obama administration and lawmakers from both parties have tried to combat this profit shifting, but their efforts mostly stalled.

When President Trump and congressional Republicans assembled an enormous tax-cut package in 2017, they pitched it in part as a grand bargain: Companies would get the deep tax cuts that they had spent years clamoring for, but the law would also represent a long-overdue effort to fight corporate tax avoidance and the shipment of jobs overseas.

“The situation where companies are actually encouraged to move overseas and keep their profits overseas makes no sense,” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said on the Senate floor in November 2017.

Republicans were racing to secure a legislative victory during Mr. Trump’s first year in office — a period marked by the administration’s failure to repeal Obamacare and an embarrassing procession of political blunders. Sweeping tax cuts could give Republicans a jolt of much-needed momentum heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

To speed things along, Republicans used a congressional process known as “budget reconciliation,” which blocked Democrats from filibustering and allowed Republicans to pass the bill with a simple majority. But to qualify for that parliamentary green light, the net cost of the bill — after accounting for different tax cuts and tax increases — had to be less than $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The bill’s cuts totaled $5.5 trillion. The corporate income tax rate shrank to 21 percent from 35 percent, and companies also won a tax break on the trillions in profits brought home from offshore.

To close the gap between the $5.5 trillion in cuts and the maximum price tag of $1.5 trillion, the package sought to raise new revenue by eliminating deductions and introducing new taxes.

Two of the biggest new taxes were supposed to apply to multinational corporations, and lawmakers bestowed them with easy-to-pronounce acronyms — BEAT and GILTI — that belie their complexity.

BEAT stands for the base erosion and anti-abuse tax. It was aimed largely at foreign companies with major operations in the United States, some of which had for years minimized their United States tax bills by shifting money between American subsidiaries and their foreign parent companies.

Instead of paying taxes in the United States, companies send the profits to countries with lower tax rates.

The BEAT aimed to make that less lucrative. Some payments that companies sent to their foreign affiliates would face a new 10 percent tax.

The other big measure was called GILTI: global intangible low-taxed income.

To reduce the benefit companies reaped by claiming that their profits were earned in tax havens, the law imposed an additional tax of up to 10.5 percent on some offshore earnings.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, the congressional panel that estimates the impacts of tax changes, predicted that the BEAT and GILTI would bring in $262 billion over a decade — roughly enough to fund the Treasury Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute for 10 years.

Sitting in the Oval Office on Dec. 22, 2017, Mr. Trump signed the tax cuts into law. It was — and remains — the president’s most significant legislative achievement.

From the start, the new taxes were pocked with loopholes.

In the BEAT, for example, Senate Republicans hoped to avoid a revolt by large companies. They wrote the law so that any payments an American company made to a foreign affiliate for something that went into a product — as opposed to, say, interest payments on loans — were excluded from the tax.

Let’s say an American pharmaceutical company sells pills in the United States. The pills are manufactured by a subsidiary in Ireland, and the American parent pays the Irish unit for the pills before they are sold to the public. Those payments mean that the company’s profits in the United States, where taxes are relatively high, go down; profits in tax-friendly Ireland go up.

Because such payments to Ireland wouldn’t be taxed, some companies that had been the most aggressive at shifting profits into offshore havens were spared the full brunt of the BEAT.

Other companies, like General Electric, were surprised to be hit by the new tax, thinking it applied only to foreign multinationals, according to Pat Brown, who had been G.E.’s top tax expert.

Mr. Brown, now the head of international tax policy at the accounting and consulting firm PwC, said on a podcast this year that the Trump administration should bridge the gap between expectations about the tax law and how it was playing out in reality. He lobbied the Treasury on behalf of G.E.

“The question,” he said, “is how creative and how expansive is Treasury and the I.R.S. able to be.”

Almost immediately after Mr. Trump signed the bill, companies and their lobbyists — including G.E.’s Mr. Brown — began a full-court pressure campaign to try to shield themselves from the BEAT and GILTI.

The Treasury Department had to figure out how to carry out the hastily written law, which lacked crucial details.

Chip Harter was the Treasury official in charge of writing the rules for the BEAT and GILTI. He had spent decades at PwC and the law firm Baker McKenzie, counseling companies on the same sorts of tax-avoidance arrangements that the new law was supposed to discourage.

Starting in January 2018, he and his colleagues found themselves in nonstop meetings — roughly 10 a week at times — with lobbyists for companies and industry groups.

The Organization for International Investment — a powerful trade group for foreign multinationals like the Swiss food company Nestlé and the Dutch chemical maker LyondellBasell — objected to a Treasury proposal that would have prevented companies from using a complex currency-accounting maneuver to avoid the BEAT.

The group’s lobbyists were from PwC and Baker McKenzie, Mr. Harter’s former firms, according to public lobbying disclosures. One of them, Pam Olson, was the top Treasury tax official in the George W. Bush administration. (Mr. Morgenstern, the Treasury spokesman, said Mr. Harter didn’t meet with PwC while the rules were being written.)

This month, the Treasury issued the final version of some of the BEAT regulations. The Organization for International Investment got what it wanted.

One of the most effective campaigns, with the greatest financial consequence, was led by a small group of large foreign banks, including Credit Suisse and Barclays.

American regulators require international banks to ensure that their United States divisions are financially equipped to absorb big losses in a crisis. To meet those requirements, foreign banks lend the money to their American outposts. Those loans accrue interest. Under the BEAT, the interest that the American units paid to their European parents would often be taxed.

“Foreign banks should not be penalized by the U.S. tax laws for complying” with regulations, said Briget Polichene, chief executive of the Institute of International Bankers, whose members include many of the world’s largest banks.

Banks flooded the Treasury Department with lobbyists and letters.

Late last year, Mr. Harter went to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and told him about the plan to give the banks a break. Mr. Mnuchin — a longtime banking executive before joining the Trump administration — signed off on the new exemptions, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A few months later, the tax-policy office handed another victory to the foreign banks, ruling that an even wider range of bank payments would be exempted.

Among the lobbyists who successfully pushed the banks’ case in private meetings with senior Treasury officials was Erika Nijenhuis of the law firm Cleary Gottlieb. Her client was the Institute of International Bankers.

In September 2019, Ms. Nijenhuis took off her lobbying hat and joined the Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy, which was still writing the rules governing the tax law.

Some tax experts said that the Treasury had no legal authority to exempt the bank payments from the BEAT; only Congress had that power. The Trump administration created the exception “out of whole cloth,” said Mr. Wells, the University of Houston professor.

Even inside the Treasury, the ruling was controversial. Some officials told Mr. Harter — the senior official in charge of the international rules — that the department lacked the power, according to people familiar with the discussions. Mr. Harter dismissed the objections.

Officials at the Joint Committee on Taxation have calculated that the exemptions for international banks could reduce by up to $50 billion the revenue raised by the BEAT.

Over all, the BEAT is likely to collect “a small fraction” of the $150 billion of new tax revenue that was originally projected by Congress, said Thomas Horst, who advises companies on their overseas tax arrangements. He came to that conclusion after reviewing the tax disclosures in more than 140 annual reports filed by multinationals.

Mr. Morgenstern, the Treasury spokesman, said: “We thoroughly reviewed these issues internally and are fully comfortable that we have the legal authority for the conclusions reached in these regulations.” He said Ms. Nijenhuis was not involved in crafting the BEAT rules.

He also said the Treasury decided that changing the rules for foreign banks was appropriate.

“We were responsive to job creators,” he said.

The lobbying surrounding the GILTI was equally intense — and, once again, large companies won valuable concessions.

Back in 2017, Republicans said the GILTI was meant to prevent companies from avoiding American taxes by moving their intellectual property overseas.

In the pharmaceutical and tech industries in particular, profits are often tied to patents. Companies had sold the rights to their patents to subsidiaries in offshore tax havens. The companies then imposed steep licensing fees on their American units. The sleight-of-hand transactions reduced profits in the United States and left them in places like Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.

But after the law was enacted, large multinationals in industries like consumer products discovered that the GILTI tax applied to them, too. That threatened to cut into their windfalls from the corporate tax rate’s falling to 21 percent from 35 percent.

Lobbyists for Procter & Gamble and other companies turned to lawmakers for help. They asked members of the Senate Finance Committee to tell Treasury officials that they hadn’t intended the GILTI to affect their industries. It was a simple but powerful strategy: Because the Treasury was required to consider congressional intent when writing the tax rules, such explanations could sway the outcome.

Several senators then met with Mr. Mnuchin to discuss the rules.

One lobbyist, Michael Caballero, had been a senior Treasury official in the Obama administration. His clients included Credit Suisse and the industrial conglomerate United Technologies. He met repeatedly with Treasury and White House officials and pushed them to modify the rules so that big companies hit by the GILTI wouldn’t lose certain tax deductions.

In essence, the “high-tax exception” that Mr. Caballero was proposing would allow companies to deduct expenses that they incurred in their overseas operations from their American profits — lowering their United States tax bills.

Other companies jumped on the bandwagon. News Corporation, Liberty Mutual, Anheuser-Busch, Comcast and P.&G. wrote letters or dispatched lobbyists to argue for the high-tax exception.

After months of meetings with lobbyists, the Treasury announced in June 2019 that it was creating a version of the exception that the companies had sought.

Two years after the tax cuts became law, their impact is becoming clear.

Companies continue to shift hundreds of billions of dollars to overseas tax havens, ensuring that huge sums of corporate profits remain out of reach of the United States government.

The Internal Revenue Service is collecting tens of billions of dollars less in corporate taxes than Congress projected, inflating the tax law’s 13-figure price tag.

This month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that the United States in 2018 experienced the largest drop in tax revenue of any of the group’s 36 member countries. The United States also had by far the largest budget deficit of any of those countries.

In the coming days, the Treasury is likely to complete its last round of rules carrying out the tax cuts. Big companies have spent this fall trying to win more.

In September, Chris D. Trunck, the vice president for tax at Owens Corning, the maker of insulation and roofing materials, wrote to the I.R.S. He pushed the Treasury to tinker with the GILTI rules in a way that would preserve hundreds of millions of dollars of tax benefits that Owens Corning had accumulated from settling claims that it poisoned employees and others with asbestos.

The same month, the underwear manufacturer Hanes sent its own letter to Mr. Mnuchin. The letter, from Bryant Purvis, Hanes’s vice president of global tax, urged Mr. Mnuchin to broaden the high-tax exception so that more companies could take advantage of it.

Otherwise, Mr. Purvis warned, “the GILTI regime will become an impediment to U.S. companies and their ability to not only compete globally as a general matter, but also their ability to remain U.S.-headquartered if they are to maintain the overall fiscal health of their business.”

The implied threat was clear: If the Treasury didn’t further chip away at the new tax, companies like Hanes, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., might have no choice but to move their headquarters overseas.

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