Why Pfizer, other US multinationals can't keep waiting for corporate tax reform

US-multinationals like Pfizer are using several tactics to avoid paying US taxes, writes Howard Gleckman. And Pfizer and other firms can't keep waiting for corporate tax reform from Congress.

Luke Macgregor/Reuters
Chief Executive of AstraZeneca Pascal Soriot leaves after appearing at a commons science committee hearing at Portcullis House in London May 14, 2014. Many US-based multinational firms can't keep waiting for Congress to enact tax reform, writes Howard Gleckman.

Is it possible that US-based multinationals are getting tired of waiting for Congress to enact corporate tax reform? Seeking cash for domestic acquisitions, some of the nation’s best-known firms are starting to bring back their foreign earnings. Some are finding ways to avoid paying tax at all on that income. Others are so anxious to put the money to work in the US that they are paying stiff taxes to do so.

The no-tax method is being practiced by US-based multinationals that move their headquarters to eliminate US taxes on foreign profits. The current poster child for this tactic, known as an inversion, is drugmaker Pfizer. The firm is aggressively bidding to acquire the British firm AstraZeneca, a purchase that would make it possible for the merged company to establish its headquarters in the UK and thus avoid the 35 percent US tax when it returns overseas revenues to the US.

Pfizer isn’t alone. Published reports identify Eaton Corp. and Chiquita Brands International as two other firms seeking to restructure themselves to avoid paying US tax on repatriated earnings.

Other multinationals are paying hefty taxes to tap their foreign profits. For instance, in April eBay announced it would shift $9 billion in overseas earnings back to the U.S., even though it would have to pay $3 billion in taxes to do so. Others expected to repatriate foreign profits, even if they must pay tax, include Google, Oracle, and Merck–all reportedly seeking to finance acquisitions. 

In the short run, at least, many lawmakers—and the Treasury—are happy to see eBay and others pay taxes on overseas income. By contrast, the Pfizer bid—which has so far been spurned—has predictably troubled Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) wants to curb inversions. The Obama Administration included similar restrictions in its recent budget. And Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) promises his own bill this week.

But what does all this say about tax reform? For years, critics have argued that by taxing foreign income at high rates while allowing firms to defer taxes until they bring that money home, the US tax system has locked up funds and discouraged domestic investment.

A tax rewrite would make deals like Pfizer’s less attractive in two ways. First, it would lower US corporate rates. Second, it is widely expected that reform would couple a new tax regime with special transition provisions to allow firms to bring foreign earnings back to the US with a big tax discount.

House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp’s reform bill and the rewrite proposed by former Finance panel chair Max Baucus both include a repatriation tax holiday. The idea is popular with lawmakers because congressional scorekeepers would count it as a tax increase, generating extra revenue to finance cuts in tax rates.

Trouble is, given ongoing political gridlock in Washington, tax reform is likely to happen later rather than sooner.

Some multinationals can afford to wait. They are awash in cash and seem to have little interest in doing much with it other than buying back their own stock. Plus, with interest rates so low, it is cheaper for them to borrow the money than repatriate foreign earnings at a 35 percent tax rate.

Other firms, however, need cash now. And they can’t keep their corporate profits locked up while Congress fiddles.

If repatriation and inversions really start to catch on, they could change the political dynamic for tax reform. The more firms repatriate foreign income, the less interested the business community will be in a corporate tax holiday and, perhaps, even broad reform. And, not incidentally, the less tax revenue a holiday would produce to finance rate cuts. These trends could further divide an already-split business community and end up making corporate reform even tougher than it is now.

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