Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Companies are stashing away billions overseas

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Washington politicians could slash the budget deficit by just tapping into the foreign profits of the top 20 American companies.

The upper tier of the Fortune 50 has burrowed away $743 billion in total profits in offshore accounts, a bounty that would yield about $119 billion for the Treasury, according to a study by NerdWallet Taxes.

With the budget deficit running at $642 billion, getting back some of that foreign-stashed cash could make a big dent.

While addressing the foreign tax havens has gained a lot of chatter, few elected officials have taken any action for fear of alienating corporate titans who can hold the key to national political careers.

Corporate Cash

Company Offshore
U.S. Tax on
Offshore Profits
Actual Tax Rate to U.S.
1. General Electric $108.0 $3.0 32%
2. Microsoft $76.4 $24.4 9%
3. Pfizer $73.0 $14.1 16%
4. IBM $44.4 $4.6 25%
5. Exxon Mobil $43.0 $0.0 41%
6. Citigroup $42.6 $11.5 Not Reported
7. Proctor & Gamble $42.0 $4.4 24%
8. Johnson & Johnson $41.6 $8.7 14%
9. Apple $40.4 $13.8 3%
10. HP $33.4 $7.3 13%

(Read more: Apple's cash 'a little bit silly': Wilbur Ross)

"When you're talking about 10 percent of GDP in corporate offshore profits, that in my opinion is pretty significant," NerdWallet tax analyst Dana Lime said in an interview. "All this money offshore could be used to fund our government."

Among the leaders in offshore profits are General Electric, Microsoft and Pfizer (see chart).

Repatriating foreign profits has been a hot-button issue among lawmakers, CEOs and lobbyists for years.

Much of the discussion centers around figuring out a way to make it fair so that companies' profits are not taxed twice. Supporters of tax breaks for repatriated profits say companies can use the money to expand their businesses and hire new workers.

Critics say too many companies are using dummy corporations overseas to hide profits.

"We have corporate lobbyists arguing for lower tax rates, and in exchange they'll hire certain types of workers," Lime said. "That's a bunch of baloney. It's proven not to be the case."

(Read more: Google pays $55 million UK tax on sales of $5 billion)

Indeed, the repatriation argument is complicated.

The dilemma essentially is over whether companies would put the windfall from a tax break to good use, or simply use it to hoard on balance sheets or use for dividends and stock buybacks.

Corporate America collectively has about $1.8 trillion on its balance sheet—excluding financial companies—and has been spending cash primarily to reward shareholders.

Companies such as Cablevision Systems, Intel and Carnival that have been among the leaders in capital expenditures have seen their shares badly underperform the market. Companies that have used the cash for buybacks and dividends, meanwhile, have prospered.

"For the largest spenders on corporate capex ... relative performance has been horrible—both in the U.S. and abroad," Nicholas Bohnsack of Strategas Research Partners said in a report. "Corporate fiduciaries know that."

Attempts are being made at legislative solutions.

Reporting requirements for wealthy individuals with overseas accounts have strengthened, for instance.

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Lime believes tax credits actually can work, as long as they're tied tightly to making companies hire workers in protected classes—veterans and minorities, for instance—and to invest in troubled areas.

Getting companies to part with any of the money they have squirreled away will be difficult, though.

"It's going to be a long fight," Lime said. "You can't be running trillion-dollar deficits year after year when these companies are sitting on hefty piles of cash."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom