The U.S. has long been accused of using the international role of the dollar to exercise an “exorbitant privilege.” The term, first used by French finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, refers to the ability of the U.S. to finance its current account deficits and acquire foreign assets by issuing dollars as a reserve currency. While flexible exchange rates have lowered the need for reserve currencies, the use of the dollar in international trade and finance ensures that there is a continuing need for dollar-denominated assets. The status of the dollar contributes to the surplus in U.S. international investment income despite its negative net international investment position (NIIP). But France also has a surplus in international investment income and a negative NIIP. Does it possess its own privilege?
The U.S. surplus reflects the composition of its external balance sheet as well as the return on its assets and liabilities. The U.S. has a positive balance on equity, and in particular, FDI, which is offset by the negative balance on portfolio securities, such as bonds. U.S. Treasury bonds are the universal “safe asset,” held by private foreign investors as well as central banks. The return on the equity assets exceeds that paid on the debt liabilities, thus yielding a positive investment income balance. This is the return that the U.S. receives for playing the role of the “world’s venture capitalist,” according to Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School. In addition, the U.S. receives a higher return on its FDI assets than it pays out on its FDI liabilities.
France also has a negative NIIP but a positive net international investment income balance. In 2018, for example, it received $35.6 billion in investment income. Moreover, the Banque de France pointed out in the 2015 Annual Report on the French Balance of Payments and International Investment Position that while the ratio of outward direct investment stocks to liabilities was 2 to 1, the ratio of FDI receipts to payments was 3 to 1. The French surplus, like that of the U.S., therefore can be attributed to both a “composition” effect reflecting the difference in the types of assets and liabilities it possesses, but also a “returns” effect due to the relatively higher return on its direct investment assets vis-à-vis its liabilities.
Vincent Vicard of CEPII (Centre d’Etudes Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales) has examined this return in a CEPII working paper, “The Exorbitant Privilege of High Tax Countries.” He finds that French firms earn higher returns on their foreign operations in low tax countries and tax havens, evidence of using the reporting of profits to increase returns. Profit shifting by the French multinationals account for two percentage points of the difference in returns on French assets and liabilities. Four European countries account for much of this activity: Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
These results are consistent with those reported for other countries, particularly the U.S. Kim Clausing of Reed College, for example, examined the impact of differentials in tax rates on the profits of U.S affiliates in “Multinational Firm Tax Avoidance and Tax Policy” in the National Tax Journal in 2009. More recently, Thomas Tørsløv and Ludvig Wier, both of the University of Copehhagen, and Gabriel Zucman of UC-Berkeley investigated the profit-shifting of multinationals in a range of countries in a NBER Working Paper, “The Missing Profits of Nations.” They estimate that close to 40% of multinational profits are shifted to tax havens globally each year. The non-haven European Union countries appear to be the main losers from this maneuvering.
But it would be too simple to dismiss the foreign earnings of French or U.S. firms as a purely accounting artifact. Multinationals have used information and communications technology to form global supply chains that allow them to source operations in low-cost countries and assemble the components elsewhere before shipment to the final market. France has its share of multinationals, including firms such as BNP Paribus, Carrefour and Peugeot. Moreover, foreign economic expansion by French firms and investors predates modern tax codes. Thomas Piketty of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the Paris School of Economics pointed out in Capital in the Twenty-First Century that the income earned from foreign holdings were sufficient to finance trade deficits and capital outflows in Great Britain and France during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The U.S. and other governments have lowered corporate tax rates in part to lure multinationals back to their home countries, and the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development intend to limit profit shifting by multinationals. Whether or not this strategy will be successful is not clear. Chris Jones and Yama Temouri of the Aston Business School have pointed out in “The Determinants of Tax Haven FDI” in the Journal of World Business that tax havens have advantages for multinationals besides lower tax rates, including few regulations and restricted openness. But President Trump has also made clear that he wants U.S. firms to operate domestically, and is willing to limit access to U.S. markets by foreign firms. France’s “privilege,” exorbitant or not, will be affected by these restrictions.