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The Hill's Congress Blog: "Congress must put the interest of the American people first"

07/24/2014 News Release Imgage

The Hill's Congress Blog: "Congress must put the interest of the American people first"

There have been in the last few months a plethora of U.S. companies that have announced plans to engage in an inversion transaction, writes Philip G. Cohen, a professor in the Legal Studies and Taxation Department of Pace University's Lubin School of Business and a retired Vice President-Tax & General Tax Counsel for Unilever United States, Inc. Probably the most famous one involved Pfizer Inc.'s attempt to acquire AstraZeneca PLC with the merged parent company to be incorporated outside the U.S. While AstraZeneca rebuffed Pfizer, other transactions are being undertaken or being actively considered.

On July 18, AbbVie Inc. announced it had agreed to buy Irish pharmaceutical company Shire PLC in a $54 billion deal that would result in the parent company incorporated in the U.K. dependency of Jersey, a small island and tax haven in the English Channel. The combined company would be one of the 50 largest companies in the world. Medtronic Inc., a $60 billion medical device company, announced last month its plan to relocate its place of incorporation outside the United States in conjunction with its acquisition of Coviden PLC. Walgreen Co., the giant U.S. drug retailer, is also reported to be considering an inversion in conjunction with exercising its option to acquire the 55 percent of a Swiss entity Alliance Boots GmbH that it doesn't currently own.

An inversion transaction involves a U.S. incorporated company becoming a foreign incorporated company that is generally continued to be managed in the United States. It's undertaken to address a provision in the Internal Revenue Code that determines whether a company will be considered to be domestic by virtue of the entity's place of incorporation.

U.S. incorporated companies are subject to tax on income earned anywhere in the world although active non-U.S. earnings of foreign subsidiaries are generally not taxed until repatriated back to the U.S. parent company. If the parent company is considered foreign for U.S. income tax purposes, it will still pay U.S. income tax on earnings from its U.S. activities but will be able to avoid tax on foreign earnings. Furthermore, the inverted companies will also have available techniques to reduce tax on its U.S. operations by, e.g., paying interest and royalties to its new foreign parent company or other low taxed foreign group members. These techniques are presently available to traditional foreign companies with U.S. operations.

Internal Revenue Code section 7874 currently provides that in general if at least 80 percent of the stock of a former U.S. company is owned by the former shareholders of the inverted company, the company is treated as a U.S. corporation for U.S. income tax purposes. To avoid this provision, inversion transactions are currently being structured so that shareholders of the foreign target company hold more than 20 percent of the merged company.

Inversion transactions are legal, and CEOs have a primary responsibility to act in the best interest of their shareholders. Since inversion transactions can be structured legally under current law and may substantially increase after-tax earnings, they need to be considered by corporate management.

Some members of Congress, especially Republicans, have argued that the answer to inversion transactions is to undertake as part of fundamental tax reform, territorial taxation pursuant to which active foreign earnings become exempt from U.S. taxation. Some refer to inversions as self-help territorial taxation. While adopting territorial taxation would do away with the need to undertake the transaction, it could also lead to further increased migration of good jobs, facilities and taxable income from the U.S.