Apple may have the largest overall stockpile, but plenty of other countries could also see substantial gains from a repatriation holiday.
Pfizer, for example, had $197 billion in unrepatriated income abroad last year, according to the ITEP report — that's about the same size as the company's total market cap. Merck, too, has seen substantial savings on untaxed earnings relative to its overall value. While some of that cash has likely gone into investments abroad, both companies would be able to bring billions back to the U.S. for domestic purchases.
"To the extent that tax changes would make it cheaper for us to access financing, then you're quite right," Pfizer CEO Ian Read said on the company's January earnings call, referring to a repatriation holiday changing the company's capital development priorities. "Some deals that previously would not have been affordable may now be affordable."
Speaking on earnings calls in recent years, executives of S&P 500 companies have often declined to provide information about their plans with offshore cash holdings. Repatriation at the current tax rate is usually avoided often enough that it is notable when large companies opt to retrieve cash and pay U.S. taxes. GE made news in 2015 when it paid $6 billion to bring home $36 billion from its sale of GE Capital.
"I am confident that we're talking about the right things," Johnson & Johnson CFO Dominic Caruso said on a conference call after a recent visit to Washington. "We're talking about a lower U.S. tax rate, we're talking about a territorial system, and we're talking about some innovation and some incentive for job creation in the U.S."
After the election, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told CNBC that a repatriation deal would allow the company to create more jobs in the U.S. The company has more than $60 billion abroad. On the company's February earnings call, Robbins said cash repatriation would not fundamentally change the company's mergers and acquisitions strategy. But it could lead to cash back to investors.
"If we were to increase our dividend, then that flows through the mutual funds, which flows through to the middle-class America, which flows through to make people feel better about their income," Robbins told CNBC after the election. "I think all that is good for business."
But Gardner argues that any tax holiday would do little to realign incentives for companies that have grown accustomed to avoiding taxes through offshoring. The move would reward larger companies for that behavior but leave smaller companies out in the cold, he said.
"These companies are offshoring profits artificially in anticipation of a special holiday," he said. "And for every company that is doing that, there are 10 small mom-and-pop companies that do business entirely in the U.S. and are complying with the law."