If you, as an individual taxpayer, tried to open a mail-box account in tax-free Bermuda and pretended to live and work there, the IRS would never let you get away with it. However, big corporations have been doing the functional equivalent for years now, with a net cost to the Treasury estimated at well over $100 billion a year and growing.
On Monday, however, the Obama administration announced strong administrative action designed to discourage such schemes. Its new regulations are aimed at blocking “tax inversions” by which major U.S.-based corporations pretend to be purchased by smaller foreign companies and pretend to move their headquarters overseas, thus enabling them to cut their federal taxes by billions of dollars.
A related corporate scam called “earnings strippings,” an accounting trick by which U.S. corporations transfer U.S. earnings to lower-tax foreign subsidiaries through fake loans, is also being shut down.
“It’s going to be a major impediment. They’re pretty much taking all of the juice out of inversions,” Robert Willens, a New York-based tax analyst, told the Wall Street Journal. “They’ve addressed literally every benefit that one attempted to gain from an inversion and shut them all down systematically.”
The new rules issued by the Treasury Department take effect immediately, and may halt a $160 billion tax-inversion scheme involving Pfizer, which was trying to move its nominal HQ to Ireland. Like other companies, the pharmaceutical giant enjoys the stability, the infrastructure, the market, the scientific know-how, the education and banking system and the intellectual-property protections that the United States provides. Their executives want the standard of living here.
They just don’t want to help pay for it.
According to tax experts, the rules announced Monday should do a lot to discourage tax inversions, but more effective steps would require that our do-nothing Congress actually do something. The Obama administration has sought greater authority to intervene to prevent such scams, and Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to block the tax-evasion strategy.
But most Republicans have balked. For example, here’s the response of Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, to Monday’s announcement:
“Instead of unveiling commonsense policies to help American employers compete globally and create new jobs for our workers, the Obama Administration just announced punitive regulations that will make it even harder for American companies to compete and will further discourage businesses from locating and investing in the United States.”
This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. When viewed through the GOP perspective, rules changes that discourage the movement of companies overseas become policies that will somehow “further discourage businesses from locating and investing in the United States“?
Let’s keep in mind that despite all of its woe-is-we poor-mouthing, corporate America is thriving as never before. Corporate AFTER-TAX profits have more than tripled since 2000, and remain at near-all-time highs. And while corporations whine about our nation’s comparatively high corporate tax rate, the reality is that very few if any actually pay taxes at that rate. For example, Pfizer, the company attempting to relocate to Ireland, claims it pays a corporate tax rate of 25 percent. A deeper dig by the Wall Street Journal shows that its actual rate in 2014 was 7.5 percent. In 2012, it was 0.2 percent.
And according to a study by the Congressional Research Service, which compared the United States to other major industrialized countries:
“Although the United States has the world’s highest statutory corporate tax rate, the U.S. effective corporate tax rate is similar to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. Further, the United States collects less in corporate tax revenue relative to Gross Domestic Production (GDP) (2.3% in 2011) than the average of other OECD countries (3.0% in 2011).”