What will Minnesota companies do with their GOP tax windfall?

President Trump speaks to a group of families.
President Trump speaks to a group of families, Young Republicans and College Republicans at the White House, while speaking about how planned tax reforms would benefit middle class families.
Chris Kleponis-Pool | Getty Images

Congressional Republicans this week expect to pass their massive tax overhaul that includes cutting the top federal corporate tax rate to 21 percent, from 35 percent. That will likely put billions of dollars in the pockets of major Minnesota companies.

What will they do with all that dough?

Republican leaders argue the tax cuts will spur job growth. A national survey of 123 CEOs found the vast majority believe the tax package will increase investment and hiring. That should hold true in Minnesota, said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, whose members include more than 100 top executives from the state's largest employers.

"They want to expand here. They want to grow in Minnesota. which means that they would put more into research and development," Weaver said. "They would put more into building things and capital, which could result clearly in hiring workers. Those are going to be good wage jobs."

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But those big Minnesota-based companies haven't said much, if anything, about what they'd do with tax savings. They certainly have options that would put money in the pockets of investors instead. And soaring stock prices indicate investors are betting corporate windfalls will be heading their way.

"The indications that we're getting and what we're seeing ... at least in the near term, it's likely to be more share buybacks, higher dividends," said Glenn Johnson, a senior vice president at the Mairs and Power investment firm in St. Paul.

Dividends are the portion of earnings that companies pay out to investors. With share buybacks, a company buys its own stock off the open market. The goal is to reduce supply and increase the price of remaining shares.

Dividend payments can be substantial. Maplewood-based 3M, for instance, has been paying dividends equal to about half of its earnings, while UnitedHealth Group of Minnetonka pays out about a third to investors.

Whatever companies do with their tax savings, the amount they save will vary widely. That's because the tax rate they pay spans a large range, depending on how and where they make their money and other factors.

Companies that get most of their sales and profits outside the U.S. will probably benefit less from tax reform, Johnson said. That's because the taxes imposed on earnings abroad are lower than in the U.S.

UnitedHealth Group's effective tax rate — which includes federal, state and other taxes — was 40 percent in the fiscal year that ended in January. So, the corporate tax cut would slash that by roughly half.

3M's overall tax rate was about 28 percent while Fridley-based medical device maker Medtronic paid a mere 18 percent in fiscal 2016, reflecting the movement of its headquarters to Ireland for tax purposes.

Target's tax bill will likely drop significantly, which could mean "anywhere from a 15 to 20 percent boost to earnings," said Brian Yarbrough, retail analyst with the investment firm Edward Jones. A 20 percent jump in last year's earnings would amount to more than $500 million.

Would the Minneapolis-based retail giant hire more people, raise wages and accelerate store openings? Yarbrough thinks not. He believes Target will pass the savings on to shareholders.

Conversely, U.S. Bank and its investors may not get as much of a kick from tax reform as its peers.

Analysts say the company has strategies that keep its tax rate well below the 35 percent level. The bank has been adept at keeping its tax rate down, averaging 26 percent in recent years, said Eric Compton with the investment research firm Morningstar.

For 3M, Medtronic and other companies with extensive international operations, the biggest payoff from tax reform could be a provision allowing them to pay lower taxes than they would now pay on overseas profits back to the U.S. In June, Bloomberg News reported that Medtronic had about $14 billion in cash overseas and 3M had $2.3 billion.

In a conference call with analysts last month, Medtronic Chief Financial Officer Karen Parkhill said getting access to its cash held outside the U.S. would be the biggest long-term benefit of tax reform to the company.