While sweeping changes to the tax system were widely expected to encourage multinational companies to bring cash back to the US, the first fiscal quarter under the policy didn't see as much repatriation as some envisioned.
But the tax law's effects are just getting started, according to analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. They predict repatriation will pick up in the next three months and, in theory, boost the US dollar.
"One of the most contrarian calls we have made this year is that US profit repatriation flows following the recent tax reform will be bullish for the USD," the analysts wrote in a note to clients Thursday.
US companies have about $3.5 trillion accumulated profits abroad today, the analysts noted, and they expect up to 90% of companies they surveyed to repatriate "at least part of" that money.
The analysts believe the GOP's new tax policies, which took effect in the beginning of the first quarter, could still help by removing a "large penalty" for repatriation.
Under the tax legislation, multinationals have to make a one-off payment on profits socked away overseas — 15.5% on cash holdings and 8% on illiquid investments. And after that, they can bring foreign profits home tax-free. The former tax policy levied a top rate of 35% on repatriation.
Apple announced in January that it would bring about $252 billion of its offshore cash back to the US, but other multinationals have been slow to follow. And the dollar, which in theory should get a boost from repatriation, has shown it. The greenback posted its fifth-straight quarterly loss in the first three months of 2018.
"We were optimistic early this year that markets would start pricing repatriation flows and this would support the USD in Q1," the analysts wrote. "Clearly, this has not happened and the consensus remains strongly against our views."
Still, analysts at BAML remain confident the second quarter will be different as corporations are more prepared to repatriate.
"Feedback from recent meetings with our corporate clients is that in general they spent the first quarter getting the details on their total accumulated profits abroad and the currency and asset composition," the analysts added.
And that means there could still be room for a strong dollar in 2018.
“Given the strong USD rally following the 2005 Homeland Investment Act, we may see something similar as markets start appreciating the potential size of repatriation flows, both in the short term from the stock and the long term from the flow.”