The Inversion Perversion

Inversion is the term of art for a U.S. Corporation buying a foreign subsidiary in order to obtain a lower tax rate by reincorporating in the foreign domicile. Often the whole transaction is a species of legal fiction.

An immense American whale of a company swallows a tiny foreign minnow, then pretends its headquarters is in low tax Ireland or Switzerland. But really the new corporate offices are little better than a mail drop. It is about as real as the Cayman Islands bank — another transparently fraudulent tax dodge.

Best of all, it’s a completely legal scam, so more and more “American” companies are renouncing their citizenship. Once they would have been ashamed to be seen acting in a blatantly unpatriotic way, but aren’t we all citizens of the world now?

Business is global. Paying American taxes is for poor people, not big business. Thanks to a Republican Supreme Court, corporations are now people with the right to practice religious prejudices and to exercise free speech by electing pliant members of Congress, but they shouldn’t have to pay taxes like loyal citizens if they can be headquartered in Luxembourg.

So Chiquita Banana is now Irish. So is Medtronic of Minneapolis and Eaton of Cleveland. Pfizer, founded in 1849 in Brooklyn, is now, with the stroke of a pen, British. So is oil driller Rowan, founded 1923 in Texas. West Virginia’s Mylan Labs and California’s Applied Materials now call the Netherlands home and Lazard of 30 Rock, New York is ostensibly from Bermuda.

If you find this practice repugnant, consider boycotting products where possible. Walgreens apparently has cancelled an inversion due to bad publicity. Both political parties claim to believe something should be done to close the inversion loophole that’s being exploited. But, surprise, they can’t agree on what action to take.

Republicans refuse to act on Inversion alone and are holding out for comprehensive tax reform. They would slash corporate rates and, in good conservative fashion, make up the difference by cutting services for or raising taxes on the backs of the middle and lower class, not the corporate chieftains who enrich themselves by sprints across the border.

Democrats, not surprisingly, do want the wealthy to take up the slack if corporate rates are cut. It should be noted that the often bemoaned top corporate rate of 41% is paid by almost no companies. In one recent inversion the difference was between an effective U.S. rate of 23% and the foreign rate of 18%.

One reason there’s bipartisan interest in doing something to curtail the practice of inversion is that some of the consequences are unintended. For example, Forbes suggests the corporation in an inversion may pay less in tax, but shareholders often get the shaft. When the company reincorporates, the transaction may stick shareholders with large unexpected and unwanted capital gains on which they will have to pay a tax. When the ox of the investing class gets gored, you can bet a political fix won’t be far behind.

A column in the L.A. Times also suggests the reason often cited for inversion is phony. The Mylan CEO claimed they had to reincorporate abroad because paying U.S. taxes made them uncompetitive. But the Times report shows that Mylan sales in the two years prior to inversion increased 12.7 percent and profits 16 percent. That was far better than the results during the same period for British competitor Glaxo and Israeli competitor Teva despite their lower tax rates.

Rep Sander Levin (D-MI) proposes a quick and clever fix. He suggests that companies seeking to claim foreign tax status should be required to prove that 50 percent or more of their shareholders are from the country of claimed incorporation. If not, the company would continue to be subject to American taxes. That’s good old-fashioned American ingenuity. Hooray for the red, white and greenback.

Of course an actual repair of the tax code to keep us competitive without penalizing the American people would be preferable, but that would require political parties to put the good of the country ahead of partisan advantage. Not bloody likely, as all our newly Irish CEOS say.

Comments are closed.