Caterpillar Inc, an American company specializing in the design and sale of construction equipment and machinery, will appear before the Senate next month, according to Bloomberg News. A Senate committee will call Caterpillar as part of its investigation of possible tax evasion by multinationals like Apple. Caterpillar is under the spotlight because it was the subject of a lawsuit in 2009, in which the company was accused by a former employee of dodging US taxes by setting up shell companies in Switzerland and Bermuda. Little evidence exists that Caterpillar did this; the original lawsuit in 2009 was settled, and Caterpillar denied the charges.
Multinationals can (and do) set up subsidiary companies in countries which have relaxed tax laws to avoid paying taxes within the U.S. Over time, the complicated maneuvers that multinations indulge in to wriggle free of the taxman's grasp have picked up nicknames that sound like the special menu in a deli:
- A Shell Company: no, this isn't the company Cally set up to sell seashells by the seashore. A shell company has no operations or significant assets, and as such, is an empty vessel or "shell." A parent company can assign nominal responibilities to it with a pen stroke, and even though nothing actually happens at the subsidiary, the parent company can use it as a store or a conduit for funds.
- A [country name] structure: Quite simply, the name of the country in which the shell company or other scam is created. Caterpillar was accused of setting up companies in Switzerland and Bermuda, known as a Swiss structure and a Bermuda structure. If they had set up in the Caymans, they would have called it a Cayman structure.
- A Double Irish: the case when two Irish subsidiary companies are set up by a U.S. entity. A Double Irish is a tortuous but profitable structure, through which money flows like soda through a crazy straw. It takes advantage of loopholes in Irish tax law that do not tax transfer pricing or the assets of subsidiary companies.
- A Dutch Sandwich: An embellishment to the Double Irish: add an additional shell company in the Netherlands, which acts as a middle step between the two Irish entities, and you get ... something that sounds tastier than it actually is.
So the next time you order lunch in Bermuda, why not try a shell in a double Irish with a Dutch sandwich? Add in a Swiss structure on the side -- and tell us what you get in return.