This past week, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew sent a letter to key members of Congress calling for the nation to embrace a “new sense of economic patriotism” and stop supporting corporations that are moving their tax home out of the U.S. to reduce their corporate income tax burdens by taking advantage of an existing loophole in the tax code.
The loophole, known as “corporate inversion,” is a transaction where a U.S. based multinational group acquires a foreign corporation located in a country whose tax rates are lower than in the U.S. These reorganizations have the effect of changing the U.S. corporation’s domicile to a foreign country but typically results in little change to the U.S. operations of the entity. Although operations in the U.S. would continue to be subject to U.S. tax, the foreign operations conducted by the newly formed group would be subject to the lower foreign country tax rates. In addition, the foreign income is not taxed to the U.S. shareholders until dividends are paid. Moreover, the U.S. corporation may engage in earnings stripping transactions where deductible payments to the parent company reduce U.S. taxable income.
These transactions are particularly attractive to pharmaceutical and medical device companies who seem to have more choices of appropriately sized targets overseas and enjoy many benefits of a global presence. Popular destinations seem to be Britain, Ireland and Bermuda for their lower tax rates and other attractive R&D incentives. Transactions involving pharma and medical device companies have spiked in recent years, most notably the recent merger of Medtronic and Covidien, the attempted acquisition by Pfizer of AstraZeneca, and the AbbVie takeover of Shire, the largest inversion deal to date.
Here’s a summary of how the proposed inversion of Pfizer might have worked:
A newly created UK holding company would acquire the shares of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca. In the resulting structure, Pfizer and AstraZeneca would be subsidiaries of the UK parent and the former Pfizer shareholders would own 73% of the UK company and AstraZeneca former shareholders would own 27%. Pfizer hoped to shift profits to the UK, where the tax rate is around 21% as compared to 35% in the US.
For similar types of inversion transactions like the one proposed in the Pfizer deal, the U.S. government has attempted to curb the use of these inversion transactions:
• Where shareholders of the U.S. corporation subsequently acquire over 50% of the new foreign parent corporation, section 367(a) causes a gain on the transfer of U.S. stock to the parent corp.
• Where shareholders of the U.S. corporation subsequently acquire 60% or more, but less than 80% of the new foreign parent corporation, section 7874 prevents the U.S. corporation from using tax attributes, such as NOLs, to offset section the 367(a) inversion gain.
• Where shareholders of the U.S. corporation subsequently acquire 80% or more of the new foreign parent corporation, section 7874 treats the new foreign parent company as a U.S. corporation for tax purposes, effectively removing any real U.S. tax savings from the transaction.
• In triangular reorganizations, section 367(b) and Notice 2014-32 causes a potential taxable dividend as a result of a “deemed” distribution between parent and subsidiary on the acquisition of the target foreign corporation in exchange for parent stock.
Under Pfizer’s proposed new structure, the corporation would not have been considered a U.S. corporation for tax purposes under section 7874 because less than 80% of the foreign parent company would be held by the former U.S. shareholders. The U.S. corporation might have had to pay tax under the other anti-abuse regulations of section 7874 and section 367, however it planned to save over $1 billion in tax due to the tax rate differential alone, according to some reports. In other inversion transactions, some corporations were able to avoid the imposition of section 367(a) inversion gain by manipulating certain aspects of section 367(b)(“Killer B reorganization” rules), in order to make the transaction nearly tax free. Much tax planning goes into achieving these various tax savings from moving overseas and the transactions can get very complicated.
The letter from Secretary Lew calls for a lowering of the U.S. corporate income tax rate, among the highest in the world. At the very least, he asks Congress to pass laws to prevent or deter companies from using these inversion strategies, including retroactive laws to prevent tax savings on restructuring deals already agreed to, such as the recent Shire takeover. Despite bipartisan disagreement on how to address the tax loophole, tax reform in this area is likely to occur in some form. However, many tax practitioners and financial experts believe that these transactions will continue to be used at an increased pace until real reform occurs to lower U.S. corporate tax rates. In the meantime, patriotism aside, corporate management will maintain its allegiance to its shareholders and continue to strive to improve the corporate bottom line in the ever increasing global economy.