Caterpillar, a Trump darling, lands in government crosshairs

An exterior view of Caterpillar's corporate headquarters in Peoria, Illinois January 26, 2009. — Reuters pic
An exterior view of Caterpillar's corporate headquarters in Peoria, Illinois January 26, 2009. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, March 3 — Caterpillar Inc., the bellwether US equipment maker praised just last week by President Donald Trump, now finds itself a government target as federal tax and banking authorities raided its Illinois offices.

The investigation comes as new Chief Executive Officer Jim Umpleby shifts its global headquarters to Chicago to bolster the machinery maker’s push into foreign markets. Last week, Doug Oberhelman, the company’s chairman, participated in discussions at the White House, where President Donald Trump said “I love Caterpillar.”

The Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security Export Enforcement yesterday raided Caterpillar’s Peoria headquarters and a facility that ships parts overseas.

“While the warrant is broadly drafted, we believe the execution of this search warrant is regarding, among other things, export filings that relate to the CSARL matter,” Caterpillar said Thursday in a statement, referring to a tax case bought by the IRS involving a Swiss subsidiary. In a filing last month, Caterpillar said it is “vigorously contesting the proposed increases to tax and penalties” of about US$2 billion (RM8.9 billion).

The stock fell 4.3 per cent to US$94.36 in New York, the biggest decline since June.

Earlier probe

The company said in an annual filing last month that it received a grand jury subpoena from the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois in January 2015. That subpoena requested documents relating to, among other things, financial information on US and non-US Caterpillar subsidiaries. It included undistributed profits of non-US subsidiaries and the movement of cash among US and non-US subsidiaries.

The Morton facility receives and ships replacement parts to dealers globally.

The manufacturer said it got additional subpoenas relating to this investigation requesting more information on the purchase and resale of replacement parts by Caterpillar and non-US Caterpillar subsidiaries, as well as dividend distributions of certain non-US Caterpillar subsidiaries. The company said in the filing that it believes this matter “will not have a material adverse effect on the company’s consolidated results of operations, financial position or liquidity.”

Caterpillar, which has a financial unit that lends to customers, said it was cooperating with the investigation.

“The timing is surprising but there have been publicly stated concerns in the past, and it could be potentially related to that,” said Macquarie analyst Sameer Rathod. Caterpillar’s “transfer pricing accounting was under a microscope and we haven’t really heard anything on these for a long time.”

Swiss case

In a 2009 whistle-blower lawsuit, a former Caterpillar executive accused the company of using offshore subsidiaries in Switzerland and Bermuda to avoid about US$2 billion in US taxes from 2000 to 2009. The company sold and shipped spare parts globally from Illinois while improperly attributing at least US$5.6 billion of profit from those sales to a unit in Geneva, according to claims made in that lawsuit, which was settled in 2012.

In 2014, the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations followed up on the executive’s claims and found that Caterpillar had “shifted billions of dollars in profits away from the United States and into Switzerland.” In Switzerland, Caterpillar had an effective corporate tax rate of 4 per cent to 6 per cent, the panel found — far less than the 35 per cent US corporate income tax rate. Caterpillar told the Senate panel that it had fully complied with US tax law.

“We believe the relevant transactions complied with applicable tax laws and did not violate judicial doctrines,” Caterpillar said in the disclosure.

A spokesman for the FDIC declined to comment on Thursday’s raids. Justin Cole, a spokesman for the IRS Criminal Investigation division, confirmed that its agents were on-site, without elaborating. — Reuters

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