The Great Tax Inversion Death Spiral

By :: July 17th, 2014

Congress and corporate America are in a dangerous and mutually destructive race: The more lawmakers threaten to ban the practice of inversions—where U.S. based multinationals merge with foreign firms to lower their tax bill-- the more firms race to complete the deals while they can. The more deals, the more pressure on Congress to ban them.

And as the market for inversions heats up, the odds lengthen against real reform that could address the fundamental problem with the U.S. corporate tax system.

The Obama Administration and some leading Democrats have tried to stop inversions by vowing to ban the practice retroactively—effectively eliminating the tax benefits of deals that were not completed by last May.

But the market is sending two signals in response: The first is it does not take the retroactivity threat very seriously. The second is that it is worried that the practice may indeed be curbed for future deals.

Hence, the rush to close inversion transactions before Congress acts. In just the past few months, at least a half-dozen U.S. firms have announced they’ve either completed or proposed tax-motivated mergers.

Some of this may be because firms are rolling in overseas cash they want to bring back to the U.S. But in a classic example of unintended consequences, Democratic threats have supercharged the inversions even more.

Of course, there are winners and losers in this gold rush.

Who wins?

The lawyers, of course. I suspect every transactional firm from LA to New York is working overtime on deals. A lawyer friend canceled our lunch for today. Why? You guessed it. He had an inversion to close.

Shareholders of the foreign partners may also come out smiling. I suspect some U.S. firms are paying sweet premiums for their merger partners. Interesting question for shareholders of the U.S. firm: Do the tax savings really justify the price of these shotgun marriages?

Who loses?

The fisc. Each of these deals reduces federal revenues. The Joint Committee on Taxation figures banning the deals would boost revenue by about $20 billion over 10 years. And those estimates were made prior to the latest round of deals.

Tax reformers. As more companies abandon the U.S. tax system by converting themselves into foreign-headquartered firms, business support for reform could fade.

Think of it like this: Lawmakers are talking about cutting the U.S. corporate rate from 35 percent to somewhere between 25 percent or 30 percent, depending on who is talking. The trade-off: Congress would also eliminate tax preferences that benefit some, but not all, U.S. firms.

But firms currently paying high rates (those least able to take advantage of corporate preferences) are the very companies voting with their feet. As they leave, many remaining U.S. firms will already be paying relatively low rates and thus may be less supportive of rate cuts that cost them the very preferences that keep their tax costs down.

And that may be the biggest tragedy of all.

Inversions are not the real problem. They are rather a symptom of the problem, which is that U.S. rates are higher than those in many other countries. Obama and many in Congress would like to treat the disease by lowering U.S. rates and restructuring the tax treatment of U.S. based multinationals. That’s sensible. But the more high-tax firms legally decamp, the harder reform will become.

Thus, the inversion rush is driving a tax policy death spiral, discouraging the very reforms that could make it unnecessary for firms to shift their headquarters overseas. If Congress doesn't act soon on fundamental reform, the entire exercise may be largely irrelevant.


  1. Michael Bindner  ::  6:12 pm on July 17th, 2014:

    The Republicans are not going to allow any legislation, period. It should not violate bipartisanship to say it – then again, I care little for bipartisanship. This set of deals will surely decrease corporate income tax revenue – but a lot of such revenue for multinationals is held overseas where it will simply stay. Eventually, some of these firms will declare a large dividend – most likely benefitting their CEOS – so if you have a European Castle up for sale, strike while the iron is hot. Other than the CEO class, I suspect many of the firms have shareholders here – as their are no national limits on who can hold shares. This is why I have always advocated a linkage between higher divididend and capital gains rates and any fix to the corporate income tax. Of course, the House won’t do that either unless there was pressure to bring te money home by investors. Even then, some of them surely put donors before country. That is the really sad part. The other option, of course, is to enact a VAT so when these firms import goods (or if they are entirely made here) a percentage of the profit is taxed anyway. This, of course, is the reason for our higher tax rate – we have no VAT that enters into the equation.

  2. Vivian Darkbloom  ::  4:02 am on July 18th, 2014:

    “Some of this may be because firms are rolling in overseas cash they want to bring back to the U.S.”

    Howard, you seem to be under the misapprehension that existing un-repatriated foreign earnings and profits of a US group can be repatriated to the US and escape US taxation after inversion. Not so. (Michael Bindner seems to think so, too, but, as usual, it’s pretty hard to decipher what he’s trying to say).

  3. monex current gold and silver prices precious metals  ::  2:30 pm on July 18th, 2014:

    Currently iit looks like Movable Type is the preferred blogging
    platform out there riught now. (from what I’ve read)
    Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  4. Commentary: Delaney’s infrastructure bill doesn’t hold up to scrutiny | Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner  ::  6:41 am on July 25th, 2014:

    […] profits, well-reported in The New York Times here and here, and as shown in the ongoing frenzy of inversions, is that corporate lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants have created and extended numerous loopholes […]

  5. Lee L.  ::  4:23 pm on August 2nd, 2014:

    What is missing here is the fact that shareholders lose out during the inversion because they are taxed at capital gains rates on any appreciation in stock price resulting from the inversion.