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The 5 Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week: May 24

3. Apple's Absurdity

So much for grilling Tim Cook.

A Senate panel led by Sen. Carl Levin (D, Mich.) questioned Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) CEO Tuesday about how the tech giant shifts profits to foreign affiliates to avoid paying billions of dollars in U.S. taxes. Levin accused the company of using accounting "gimmicks" to keep from ponying up $3.5 billion in U.S. federal taxes in 2011 and $9 billion in 2012. Apple, on the other hand, said it employs tens of thousands of Americans and pays "an extraordinary amount" in U.S. taxes, citing the roughly $6 billion it paid in fiscal 2012.

"Apple is exploiting an absurdity," said Levin prior to the hearing.

Yes it is, Carl. But it's your absurdity! Congress created this whole stupid game whereby companies can park cash in corporate tax havens like Ireland, so how can you criticize Cook for playing by your rules?

In fact, judging from the tone of the questions on your panel, it is painfully clear that Apple knows the ins and out of the American tax system better than you and your esteemed colleagues do. Frankly, it was embarrassing to listen to the supposedly august Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations attempt to trick Cook into revealing how and where he hides Apple's stash.

Of course he's not going to tell you! Why on earth would he? If you hid $102 billion in cash somewhere in the world, you wouldn't tell the tax man where it was either.

And as for Apple, boy, do they play the tax avoidance game with aplomb.

The tech giant has multiple Irish subsidiaries in order to slip any sleuths on their money trail, each with its own ridiculous acronym. For example, they have Apple Operations International ("AOI"), Apple Operations ("AO"), Apple Operations Europe ("AOE"), Apple Sales International ("ASI") and Apple Distribution International ("ADI"), just to name a few.

Oh, man. Not since Enron CFO Andy Fastow created Jedi, Chewco and all those other Star Wars themed Cayman Island-based entities have we seen such offshore trickery.

Not that Apple is doing anything illegal a la Enron mind you, or condones burying cash on Caribbean islands like some corporate Blackbeard. Apple specifically said in a statement that "it does not hold money on a Caribbean island; and it does not have a bank account in the Cayman Islands."

Why should it? It's getting too good a deal in Ireland. It paid just 1.9% in taxes on its $37 billion in overseas profits in 2012. By comparison, the average tax rate in the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was 24% in 2012.

And it's not just Congress enabling Apple's tax avoidance. The Fed is also responsible for its money-moving machinations because of its financially repressive bond-buying program, at least according to Cook and his cohorts.

Apple pledged in April to return $100 billion to its shareholders in less than three years through a combination of share repurchases and dividends. If Apple had used its overseas cash to fund this return of capital, it would have been smacked with the corporate U.S. tax rate of 35%. Thanks to Fed Chief Ben Bernanke, however, it made more sense for the formerly debt-free company to sell $17 billion in bonds to meet this commitment.

"By contrast, given today's historically low interest rates, issuing debt at a cost of less than 2% is much more advantageous for the Company's shareholders. Because Apple was able to borrow at a cost lower than the cost of its equity, issuing debt lowered Apple's overall cost of capital," said the company in its statement.

All in all, the proceedings were a waste of Tim's time, not to mention the very same taxpayer dollars Levin is trying to drum up by beating down on Apple's CEO.

Put simply, Carl thought he could make Cook cry uncle. Yet all he really did was make us cringe at Uncle Sam.
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