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Tech industry, Congress are far apart on tax break for cash repatriation, Sen. Feinstein says

Key Points
  • California Sen. Dianne Feinstein reveals discussions on a cash repatriation tax break for U.S. companies are not going well.
  • Feinstein says the "tech industry wants 4 percent," but a 15 percent rate is "revenue neutral," suggesting opponents and supporters of tax reform bill are far apart.
  • Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook and other large tech companies hold roughly $600 billion in foreign cash.
  • Investors have been betting on a tax break that would encourage them to bring more back to U.S.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

Sen. Dianne Feinstein says talks in Congress about a tax break to encourage U.S. companies to bring home more foreign cash have little momentum.

"I've had discussions, I haven't given up yet," Feinstein, a California Democrat, told a crowd of hundreds packed into the Herbst Theater in her hometown of San Francisco.

Her comments, during an onstage discussion organized by the Commonwealth Club, came in response to a question about the possibility of tax reform that would encourage U.S. companies to repatriate some of their massive overseas cash hoards.

"Many of us are looking for a methodology to let them do that, but the tech industry wants 4 percent (as a repatriation rate) and 15 percent is revenue neutral," she said.

Investors have been betting such a tax bill would boost investment, jobs and shareholder returns here in America, because U.S. companies hold more than $1 trillion in offshore cash.

The largest and most valuable technology companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Qualcomm, Amazon, Intel and Nvidia, have roughly $600 billion in foreign cash on their balance sheets, a CNBC review of their latest securities filings shows.

Companies have kept the money overseas hoping to avoid paying the U.S. corporate tax rate, which tops out at 35 percent but can be as low as 15 percent thanks to deductions.

Yet the comments of Feinstein, a 24-year veteran of the Senate whose state is home to most of the nation's largest tech firms, indicate supporters and opponents of tax reform have staked out negotiating positions that are far apart.

In response to a follow-up question about the prospects for broader tax reform, Feinstein breathed out noticeably, indicating the difficulty of that task, and said, "Oh boy."

She then added: "It's a fair thing to do, to look at the corporate tax rate."

When CNBC asked after the event whether any repatriation tax provision had to be revenue-neutral, or if some tax rate between 4 percent and 15 percent could yield a compromise, Feinstein answered: "It depends on what the money is used for."

Any tax savings to U.S. companies that results from a repatriation tax break should either "go back to the government" or "create jobs," she said.

But investors excited about the prospect of repatriation are generally hoping the money would be used for dividends, share repurchases or growth acquisitions.