One of the key drivers of the recent spike in M&A deals (and sellside advisory fees) has been the surge in tax inversion transactions, deals in which a U.S. company reincorporates for tax purposes in a tax-friendlier country such as the U.K. or Ireland, while maintaining its real headquarters in the U.S. Traditionally such deals have involved a merger between a U.S. firm and a smaller foreign firm. The reason for such deals is simple: to lower the corporate tax payments by avoiding the venue of the one country with the highest corporate tax rate in the world: USA, and leave more cash available for distribution to private shareholders. And since every such deal lowers the cumulative tax that the US collects from corporations, Obama, helpless to change the legislation that ushered in these deals in the first place, came out a few months ago, with a heartfelt appeal to corporate patriotism, calling inversions "wrong", and demanding "corporate patriotism." He failed. Which is why moments ago the Treasury released its new rules meant to "Reduce Tax Benefits of Corporate Inversions."
Per the US Treasury: "Today, Treasury is taking action to reduce the tax benefits of — and when possible, stop — corporate tax inversions. This action will significantly diminish the ability of inverted companies to escape U.S. taxation. For some companies considering mergers, today’s action will mean that inversions no longer make economic sense."
As the WSJ explains, in a multipronged attack, the administration took action under five separate sections of the tax code to make so-called inversions harder to accomplish and less profitable.
Three of the moves are aimed at blocking inverted companies from using techniques—sometimes known as "hopscotching"—to get access to their offshore cash without paying U.S. tax on it. Those would apply to deals closed on or after Sept. 22.
Another move makes it more difficult for U.S. firms to skirt current ownership standards in inverting. Still another move would make it harder for U.S. firms to spin off subsidiaries overseas.
Taken together, the administration's moves are likely to remove at least some of the economic appeal of inversions, which have become more common in recent years, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Noticeably absent, however, was a much-discussed idea to limit inverted companies' ability to ship U.S. profits overseas tax free.
Will it work? Hardly. After all it is the same corporations that have lobbied their favorite puppet politicians over the years that made inversions possible in the first place, and absent a change in the law it is difficult to see what authority the US Treasury has to make up rules on the fly. The WSJ agrees: "some experts have questioned how much authority the Treasury Department actually has in the area, and legal challenges to Monday's actions remain a possibility. The moves also seem unlikely to end inversions altogether, as even Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has recently conceded, in part because the administration has little legal ability to block the most common type of inversion." Just in case there was any doubt who really calls the shots in the America...
Nonetheless, the inversion free for all is now likely over: "Monday's announcement was likely to chill many deals, at least for now. The Treasury Department also promised to continue looking for other regulatory steps to discourage inversions, and to review tax treaties."
Yet to think: the US government would have spared itself so much jawboning effort and fake work if all the Treasury did was promise that the 10 largest shareholders of the "unpatriotic inversion offender" would get the "tea party" treatment by the IRS. Then watch as inversions end with a thud, never to be heard of again.
And should the US government be taken to task for yet another despotic, "executive action" tactic, well, there are so many backupless hard disks in the US government that can and will fail at just the right time, that one is assured no trace of any decision process will ever exist.
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Below is the fact sheet on the specific actions the Treasury will take starting today:
Today, Treasury is taking action to reduce the tax benefits of — and when possible, stop — corporate tax inversions. This action will significantly diminish the ability of inverted companies to escape U.S. taxation. For some companies considering mergers, today’s action will mean that inversions no longer make economic sense.
Specifically, the Notice eliminates certain techniques inverted companies currently use to access the overseas earnings of foreign subsidiaries of the U.S. company that inverts without paying U.S. tax. Today’s actions apply to deals closed today or after today.
This notice is an important initial step in addressing inversions. Treasury will continue to examine ways to reduce the tax benefits of inversions, including through additional regulatory guidance as well as by reviewing our tax treaties and other international commitments. Today’s Notice requests comments on additional ways that Treasury can make inversion deals less economically appealing.
Specifically, today’s Notice will:
Prevent inverted companies from accessing a foreign subsidiary’s earnings while deferring U.S. tax through the use of creative loans, which are known as “hopscotch” loans(Action under section 956(e) of the code)
- Under current law, U.S. multinationals owe U.S. tax on the profits of their controlled foreign corporations (CFCs) although they don’t usually have to pay this tax until those profits are repatriated (that is, paid to the U.S. parent firm as a dividend). Profits that have not yet been repatriated are known as deferred earnings.
- Under current law, if a CFC, tries to avoid this dividend tax by investing in certain U.S. property—such as by making a loan to, or investing in stock of its U.S. parent or one of its domestic affiliates—the U.S. parent is treated as if it received a taxable dividend from the CFC.
- However, some inverted companies get around this rule by having the CFC make the loan to the new foreign parent, instead of its U.S. parent. This “hopscotch” loan is not currently considered U.S. property and is therefore not taxed as a dividend.
- Today’s notice removes benefits of these “hopscotch” loans by providing that such loans are considered “U.S. property” for purposes of applying the anti-avoidance rule. The same dividend rules will now apply as if the CFC had made a loan to the U.S. parent prior to the inversion.
Prevent inverted companies from restructuring a foreign subsidiary in order to access the subsidiary’s earnings tax-free (Action under section 7701(l) of the tax code)
- After an inversion, some U.S. multinationals avoid ever paying U.S. tax on the deferred earnings of their CFC by having the new foreign parent buy enough stock to take control of the CFC away from the former U.S. parent. This “de-controlling” strategy is used to allow the new foreign parent to access the deferred earnings of the CFC without ever paying U.S. tax on them.
- Under today’s notice, the new foreign parent would be treated as owning stock in the former U.S. parent, rather than the CFC, to remove the benefits of the “de-controlling” strategy. The CFC would remain a CFC and would continue to be subject to U.S. tax on its profits and deferred earnings.
Close a loophole to prevent an inverted companies from transferring cash or property from a CFC to the new parent to completely avoid U.S. tax (Action under section 304(b)(5)(B) of the code)
- These transactions involve the new foreign parent selling its stock in the former U.S. parent to a CFC with deferred earnings in exchange for cash or property of the CFC, effectively resulting in a tax-free repatriation of cash or property bypassing the U.S. parent. Today’s action would eliminate the ability to use this strategy.
Make it more difficult for U.S. entities to invert by strengthening the requirement that the former owners of the U.S. entity own less than 80 percent of the new combined entity:
- Limit the ability of companies to count passive assets that are not part of the entity’s daily business functions in order to inflate the new foreign parent’s size and therefore evade the 80 percent rule – known as using a “cash box. (Action under section 7874 of the code) Companies can successfully invert when the U.S. entity has, for example, a value of 79 percent, and the foreign “acquirer” has a value of 21 percent of the combined entity. However in some inversion transactions, the foreign acquirer’s size is inflated by passive assets, also known as “cash boxes,” such as cash or marketable securities. These assets are not used by the entity for daily business functions. Today’s notice would disregard stock of the foreign parent that is attributable to passive assets in the context of this 80 percent requirement. This would apply if at least 50 percent of the foreign corporation’s assets are passive. Banks and other financial services companies would be exempted.
- Prevent U.S. companies from reducing their size pre-inversion by making extraordinary dividends. (Action under section 7874 of the code) In some instances, a U.S. entity may pay out large dividends pre-inversion to reduce its size and meet the 80 percent threshold, also known as “skinny-down” dividends. Today’s notice would disregard these pre-inversion extraordinary dividends for purposes of the ownership requirement, thereby raising the U.S. entity’s ownership, possibly above the 80 percent threshold.
- Prevent a U.S. entity from inverting a portion of its operations by transferring assets to a newly formed foreign corporation that it spins off to its shareholders, thereby avoiding the associated U.S. tax liabilities, a practice known as “spinversion.” (Action under section 7874 of the code) In some cases a U.S. entity may invert a portion of its operations by transferring a portion of its assets to a newly formed foreign corporation and then spinning-off that corporation to its public shareholders. This transaction takes advantage of a rule that was intended to permit purely internal restructurings by multinationals. Under today’s action, the spun-off foreign corporation would not benefit from these internal restructuring rules with the result that the spun off company would be treated as a domestic corporation, eliminating the use of this technique for these transactions.