The Opinion Pages | EDITORIAL
Pfizer's Big Breakthrough: Global Tax Avoidance
The $160 billion deal to combine Pfizer and Allergan, the maker of Botox, does not appear to be illegal. But it should be. This merger is a tax-dodging maneuver that enriches shareholders and executives while shortchanging the public and robbing the Treasury of money that would pay for a host of government programs — including education, scientific research and other services that also benefit corporations.
Pfizer, with a market value of nearly $200 billion, will be acquired by the smaller Allergan, which is run from New Jersey but technically headquartered in Ireland. This will allow Pfizer, which is based in New York, to pass itself off as Irish as well. Once the paper shuffling is complete, much if not most of Pfizer's earnings — including those that are made in the United States — will be taxed at global tax rates that are generally lower than American tax rates.
In recent years, dozens of American companies have used similar tactics, known as inversions, to reincorporate in Ireland, Britain and other countries with lower corporate tax rates than those in the United States — at a cost to the Treasury conservatively estimated at $20 billion over 10 years. Pfizer's merger is by far the largest such move.
But if it's a loss for taxpayers, it's a great deal for Pfizer. As with other companies that have "inverted," the only thing it has to lose is its tax obligations. Inverted companies almost invariably keep their headquarters and top executives in the United States. They remain listed on United States-based stock exchanges, where they raise capital under the protection of American securities' laws. The newly combined Pfizer Inc. and Allergan P.L.C., for instance, will be renamed Pfizer P.L.C. and trade under the ticker symbol PFE, Pfizer's current symbol, on the New York Stock Exchange, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In addition, inverted companies continue to enjoy the protection of patent laws in the United States, as well as their connections, official and unofficial, with federal research agencies — all of which are crucial to drug-company profits. Contrary to popular belief, much high-risk, pathbreaking research and development can be traced not to the big drug companies but to taxpayer-funded research at the National Institutes of Health.
Traditionally, corporate taxation was a way to repay the public for benefits companies received from federal support. But in recent decades, corporate taxes as a share of federal revenue have shriveled. Inversions will only worsen that trend, effectively bolstering corporate profits at the expense of the public.
That claim does not stand up. American multinationals routinely take advantage of write-offs that reduce the top rate to a much lower level. Moreover, even an inverted company is supposed to pay tax on earnings generated in the United States at American rates. But by having a foreign parent company in one country — Ireland in this case — while remaining headquartered in the United States, a company can lower its tax bill through an accounting gimmick known as "earnings stripping," in which profits from the United States are shifted to the foreign parent in the lower-taxed country, thus reducing the American tax bill.Pfizer executives, and the executives of inverted companies, don't put it that way. They say they cannot remain competitive if they have to pay tax on profits at the relatively high United States top rate of 35 percent.
It is not hard to write legislation and draw up rules outlawing inversions, and bills currently in Congress could put a stop to them quickly. What is lacking is political will to tell powerful corporate interests to stop. The Treasury Department under President Obama has issued rules to curb the practice. But the Pfizer and Allergan hookup is expected to get around these constraints. The administration could do more, but even more aggressive executive action would not be as effective as robust legislation.
Reincorporating abroad is a sophisticated variation on the old practice of avoiding corporate taxes by renting a post office box in the Caribbean and calling it corporate headquarters. Congress put a stop to those tactics in 2004. It is past time to shut down inversions as well.