Friday, November 10, 2006

IKEA is a non-profit?

In yesterday's quick rogues' gallery I forgot to mention what is in dollar terms probably the largest non-profit scam in history: the fact that IKEA, the giant Scandinavian retailer, is wholly owned by a charitable foundation so as to evade taxes on its profits.

The Economist detailed this arrangement in its May 11, 2006 issue. "The parent for all IKEA companies—the operator of 207 of the 235 worldwide IKEA stores—is Ingka Holding, a private Dutch-registered company. Ingka Holding, in turn, belongs entirely to the Stichting Ingka Foundation. This is a Dutch-registered, tax-exempt, non-profit-making legal entity, which was given the shares of (IKEA founder) Ingvar Kamprad in 1982." Depending on who's doing the math, that foundation is on paper arguably the largest in the world, even bigger than the Gates Foundation's $30 billion in assets. The declared mission is to promote “innovation in the field of architectural and interior design” and “for investing long-term in order to build a reserve for securing the IKEA group, in case of any future capital requirements.”

A five-person executive committee, chaired by Kamprad, runs the foundation. "This committee appoints the boards of Ingka Holding, approves any changes to the company's statutes, and has pre-emption rights on new share issues. Mr Kamprad's wife and a Swiss lawyer have also been members of this committee..."

That sort of thing was once common in the U.S., albeit never at such a size, but was first addressed by a 1950s federal law and today couldn't be done at all because of the 1969 Tax Reform Act. But "Dutch foundations are very loosely regulated and are subject to little or no third-party oversight. They are not, for instance, legally obliged to publish their accounts [annual financials]." There is no minimum grantmaking requirement as U.S. foundations operate under, so despite receiving at least a half-billion dollars per year in IKEA dividends the foundation doesn't appear to be issuing more than a couple of million per year in grants, The Economist found. Something to think about the next time you're scoring one of those nifty $9.99 table lamps....

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