On Wednesday, the New York Times examined the practice of some U.S. corporations inverting (reincorporating in another country) by merging with foreign companies, and the extent to which this is done to avoid U.S. taxes. This problem is probably somewhat overblown, but to the extent that it exists, there are straightforward ways Congress can address it.
It used to be that U.S. tax law was so weak in this area that an American corporation could reincorporate in a known tax haven like Bermuda and declare itself a non-U.S. corporation. (Technically a new corporation would be formed in the tax haven country that would then acquire the U.S. corporation.) In theory, any profits it earned in the U.S. at that point should be subject to U.S. taxes, but profits earned by subsidiaries in other countries would then be out of reach of the U.S. corporate tax.
But what sometimes happened in practice was that even the profits earned in the U.S. were made to look (to the IRS) like they were earned in the tax haven country through practices like “earnings stripping,” which involves loading up the American subsidiary company (the real company) with debt owed to the foreign parent (the shell company). That would reduce the American company’s taxable profits and shift them to the tax-haven parent company, which wouldn’t be taxable. A 2007 Treasury study concluded that a section of the code enacted in 1989 to prevent earnings-stripping (section 163(j)) did not seem to prevent inverted companies from doing it.
This problem was to some extent addressed by the “anti-inversion” provisions of the American Jobs Creation Act (AJCA) of 2004, resulting in the current section 7874 of the tax code. The problem highlighted in the Times article is that American corporations today can sometimes get around section 7874 by merging with an existing foreign corporation.
It’s a safe bet that some of these mergers really are motivated partly by a desire to avoid U.S. taxes on profits earned in other countries and also to avoid U.S. taxes on what are really U.S. profits but which are shifted into tax havens through earnings stripping. This may well be the case in the three examples cited of American corporations merging with Irish corporations, as Ireland has a low corporate tax rate and has featured prominently in tax schemes used by Apple and other companies.
In other cases, tax avoidance may not be the only factor in firms deciding to merge — as in the examples cited in the article of an American company merging with a French firm and another merging with a Japanese firm. But even in both of these cases, the new companies are to be incorporated in the Netherlands, which has also featured in tax avoidance schemes used by companies like Google, which suggests that tax avoidance is certainly a sweetener in the deal.
One question not addressed is the extent to which an Obama administration proposal to crack down on earnings stripping by inverted companies would resolve this problem. This proposal would basically apply a stricter version of section 163(j), the provision that is supposed to stop earnings stripping, to inverted companies that manage to avoid being treated as a U.S .corporation under section 7874, the anti-inversion provision enacted in 2004.
Specifically, section 7874 treats an ostensibly foreign corporation as a U.S. corporation for tax purposes if (1) it resulted from an inversion that was accomplished (meaning the U.S. corporation became, at least on paper, obtained by a corporation incorporated abroad) after March 4, 2003, (2) the shareholders of the American corporation own 80 percent or more of the voting stock in the new corporation, and (3) the new corporation does not have substantial business activities in the country in which it is incorporated.
Section 7874 provides much less severe tax consequences for corporations that meet these criteria except that shareholders of the American company now own between 60 percent and 80 percent (rather than 80 percent or more) of the voting stock in the newly formed corporation. Section 7874 does not treat these corporations as U.S. corporations, and that may allow them to save a lot of money by stripping earnings out of their American subsidiary companies. The President’s proposal would apply a stricter version of section 163(j), the provision that is supposed to prevent earnings stripping, to these companies (and to companies that inverted before 2003).
Tax avoidance by the corporations resulting from the mergers discussed in the Times article might be curbed by the Obama proposal. To be affected, the new corporations need to be at least 60 percent owned by the shareholders of the American company and also have no substantial business activities in the country where they are incorporated. For example, the merger between an American company and a French company and the merger between an American company and a Japanese company both resulted in companies incorporated in the Netherlands. They may be over 60 percent owned by the American shareholders and it’s likely that they have no substantial business in the Netherlands, a notorious tax-haven conduit.
But even if the resulting company does not meet these tests, Congress should subject them to the stiffer earnings stripping rule. In other words, the administration’s proposal is arguably too weak. For example, even if one of these mergers results in a company that does have substantial business activities in the country where it is incorporated, why should that company be allowed to strip earnings from its American subsidiary companies?
For that matter, the stricter earnings stripping standard that would be imposed under the President’s proposal is one that reasonably should apply to any foreign-owned company. Among other things, it would bar an American subsidiary company from taking deductions for interest payments to a foreign parent company in excess of 25 percent of its “adjusted taxable income,” which is defined as taxable income plus most certain significant deductions that corporations are allowed to take.
This seems like a reasonable standard to apply regardless of whether or not an inversion has taken place. In other words, Congress should enact an expanded, stronger version of the President’s proposal.