It’s a free country or so they say.
Like every place, we here in the United States have our laws, regulations and taxes. That’s the nature of things where all governments reside, which is sometimes to the ire and discomfort of business people.
And while the U.S. remains a refuge and haven for foreign direct investment, which was the topic of our blog last week, it is somewhat ironic and interesting to note that some U.S. companies are reincorporating themselves overseas for tax reasons.
These corporate relocations, known as inversions, are becoming more common, and has both parties in Washington at least concerned. But whether lawmakers will actually act to remedy the situation, well, that’s another story.
Legal But Wrong
Speaking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College last week, President Obama accused certain companies of “cherry-picking the rules” and damaging the country’s finances and the economy by this practice of inversion.
“My attitude is I don’t care if it’s legal, it’s wrong,” he said.
Mr. Obama is now echoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who has called for a new sense of “economic patriotism” and has urged Congress to take steps quickly to prevent U.S. companies from shifting their headquarters abroad to benefit from a lower tax rate.
Typically, these inversions are not causing U.S. job losses. Rather, this is a shell game in which a company sets up a tax domicile abroad which is often no more than a small office, all the while keeping the bulk of business operations here in the U.S.
Inversions take place when a large U.S. firm buys a smaller target company domiciled in a tax-friendly country like Ireland, which has a corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent compared to that of the U.S., which has an ostensible rate percent of 35 percent.
Minnow Swallows the Whale
The acquisition is structured in such a way that the U.S. company becomes on paper the subsidiary of the smaller foreign corporation. Edward Kleinbard, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg news that such a deal is where “the foreign minnow swallows the domestic whale.”
The goal or purpose is to avoid paying the federal tax that applies when companies repatriate their low-taxed foreign earnings to the U.S.
In the past few weeks, two U.S. drug firms — AbbVie and Mylan – have moved forward with foreign takeover plans that would allow them to pay lower tax rates. AbbVie reported a global effective tax rate for 2013 of 22.6 percent, a roughly one-third discount off the U.S. statutory rate, largely as a result of its low-taxed foreign earnings.
Lew, who advocates lowering the U.S. headline rate and revamping the entire tax code, charges that companies that do inversions essentially want to keep the advantages of being in the U.S. – things like intellectual property protection, research support, financial security and reliable infrastructure — without paying for them.
Renouncing Their Citizenship
In a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Lew wrote that Congress should act now to prevent even more companies “effectively renouncing their citizenship to get out of paying taxes.”
But because he is a cabinet member in the Obama administration, you can bet the Republicans are not going to dance anytime soon, even if they, too, recognize that there is a problem.
That is just the nature of Washington today, where true governance, based on give and take compromise and statesmanship between the two parties, is a very rare thing indeed.
Senior administration officials have been telling reporters that the president supports a long-term rewrite of the tax code to make the U.S. a more attractive place to locate businesses, jobs and investment. Never mind that is pretty much what the Republicans have been saying, too.
No Fix Soon
But most political observers doubt that anything will be done before the midterm elections in November, where the GOP stands a good chance to reclaim a majority in the Senate.
Mr. Obama apparently wants legislation that would essentially say that if more than half of the new firm is owned by the old U.S. firm’s shareholders, the inversion won’t be recognized for tax purposes. I think that makes a lot of sense.
The ultimate goal with any legislative fix is to keep the U.S. corporate tax base from eroding. Senior administration officials are particularly worried about “a bandwagon effect,” in which one firm in a sector inverts, raising pressure on other companies in the sector to invert as well.
One such potential decision to reincorporate overseas lies with Walgreen Co., which could raise pressure on CVS Caremark Corp. to do the same. Walgreen, which owns a 45 percent stake in European drug retailer and wholesaler Alliance Boots, could buy the remaining shares, thereby opening up the possibility of reincorporating in Europe and benefiting from a lower tax rate.
Riddled with Loopholes
Over the last 10 years, 47 companies have reincorporated abroad, compared to 29 over the previous two decades, according to the Congressional Research Service. As many as 30 inversion transactions could be moving through the deal-making pipeline right now, according to the Obama administration.
Kleinbard writes that inversions “are symptomatic of a corporate tax system that is highly distortionary, unstable and riddled with loopholes. The headline rate of 35 percent is well above world averages, effective rates imposed on investments vary wildly, and the international rules in particular are an incoherent mess.”
No argument from me on that, professor. He further writes:
“Inverting firms try to justify corporate self-help as the right response, but inversions both gut the domestic tax base and allow key players (those with international operations) to excuse themselves from the debate, while domestic firms are left holding the bag.”
Nobody likes to be left holding the bag. So let’s level the playing field with a bipartisan comprehensive tax code rehaul, which would make our nation more competitive on a world stage. We need to cut our statutory corporate tax rate by half, all the while closing loopholes for special interests.
Now you, Republicans, and you, Democrats. Get at it. Do your job. Quit talking around each other and start talking to each other. Is that too much to ask?
Saw One Coming but Not the Other
You know, I am fast coming to the conclusion that I should start calling myself an economic development “futurist” or maybe a “seer” so that I can charge more money.
Back on July 8, in my blog entitled “A Masterpiece of Economic Development,” I wrote that with the spate of recent U.S., German and Japanese automotive investment in Mexico, with new OEM assembly plants being announced with some regularity, that it was just a matter of time before the Koreans would follow suit.
Well, my prediction seems to be coming true, as Reuters reported this past week that Kia is in talks with Mexico to open a new auto assembly plant worth at least $1.5 billion.
The news service quoted Rolando Zubiran, secretary of economic development in Nuevo Leon, as saying that negotiations on the plant were under way and involved Nuevo Leon, the Mexican federal government and Kia, an affiliate of Hyundai Motor Corp.
“It’s more than $1.5 billion,” Zubiran said, referring to the planned investment. He said Nuevo Leon hoped the deal would be concluded during the first two weeks of August.
Reuters reported that sources said the plant will have an annual capacity of some 300,000 cars and will be built on the northeastern outskirts of Monterrey.
But before I get too much of the big head, I should fess up. I will admit that I was somewhat surprised that Volkswagen announced that it will invest $900 million to expand its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and add 2,000 jobs by 2018.
I say that because I had sensed a tension between VW management and the state of Tennessee, stemming from the company’s desire to essentially unionize its workforce so that it could get incorporate its vaunted works council business model.
There still may be some tension there, as the United Auto Workers will be establishing a local, much to the horror of some elected officials. We’ll see how this story plays out, but it apparently did not thwart VW’s plans to expand the Chattanooga plant in a big way.
So maybe if I was a real futurist, I would not be so surprised by such turn of events. Best I keep my consulting rates reasonable and not make such claims.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.
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