Tax Policy and the Efficiency of US Direct Investment Abroad

by Mihir A. Desai, C. Fritz Foley & James R. Hines Jr.

Overview — The tax policy toward multinational firms has come under increased scrutiny with the rise of global activities of firms and concerns that these activities displace activities at home. This scrutiny has raised the question of whether current tax policy inefficiently subsidizes the foreign activities of firms. Mihir A. Desai, C. Fritz Foley, and James R. Hines, Jr. consider this claim by applying the theory of dynamic efficiency to the activities of multinational firms. Specifically, by comparing direct investment abroad with repatriated investment returns over the last sixty years, they conclude that firms are not investing to dynamically inefficient levels, suggesting that current tax policy is not an inefficient subsidy. Key concepts include:

  • U.S. direct investment abroad generated cash flows greater than investment deployed by more than $1 trillion for equity investments from 1982-2010 annually, and $2 trillion for equity and debt investments from 1950-2010. The data suggest that US foreign investment is dynamically efficient.

Author Abstract

Deferral of U.S. taxes on foreign source income is commonly characterized as a subsidy to foreign investment, as reflected in its inclusion among "tax expenditures" and occasional calls for its repeal. This paper analyzes the extent to which tax deferral and other policies inefficiently subsidize U.S. direct investment abroad. Investments are dynamically inefficient if they consistently generate fewer returns to investors than they absorb in new investment funds. From 1982-2010, repatriated earnings from foreign affiliates exceeded net capital investments by $1.1 trillion in 2010 dollars; and from 1950-2010, repatriated earnings and net interest from foreign affiliates exceeded net equity investments and loans by $2.1 trillion in 2010 dollars. By either measure, cash flows received from abroad exceeded 160 percent of net investments, implying that foreign investment over these periods was dynamically efficient.

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