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How do you say Viagra in Gaelic? That’s an internal question the Pfizer Corporation may have to deal with if it’s successful in its latest attempt to avoid billions of dollars in taxes by trading its U.S. citizenship for an Irish passport in a process known as a corporate inversion.
The drug and consumer health products maker is attempting to buy Allergan, an Ireland-based firm, and assume that company’s Irish identity.
But that’s probably about as painful as the move would get for the New York-based pharmaceutical firm. When a company like Pfizer attempts to become a resident of Ireland or other tax haven countries, there generally aren’t a lot of moving trucks involved. Usually, corporate inversions are a purely paper transaction in which corporations shift their U.S. profits overseas for tax purposes without changing the way they do business. Inverting companies typically continue to rely heavily on the American education, transportation and healthcare infrastructure that have allowed them to prosper. The only real change is that post-inversion companies are no longer paying for the government benefits they consume. An inversion by Pfizer would very likely amount to pretending to be Irish, much like the Notre Dame mascot.
This is the second time in as many years that the company has attempted to renounce its U.S. citizenship. In 2014, the company attempted to trade its U.S. passport for a British one by acquiring the firm AstraZeneca.
The irony is that Pfizer has already been doing its best to pretend it’s a foreign corporation for some time. In each of the past seven years, Pfizer has reported losing at least a billion dollars a year in the United States while making money hand over fist in other nations. Between 2008 and 2014, Pfizer claims it lost $21 billion in the U.S. while enjoying $104 billion in foreign profits. Is it plausible that the maker of Viagra and ChapStick hasn’t made a dime of profits in the United States since 2007 even as it has averaged $15 billion a year in foreign profits?
A more likely explanation is that the company has been aggressively shifting its U.S. profits into foreign tax haven subsidiaries. A recent Citizens for Tax Justice report found that Pfizer has a stunning 151 subsidiaries in known foreign tax havens, more than all but five other Fortune 500 corporations. It’s probably no coincidence that the company also has been very aggressive in declaring its profits to be “permanently reinvested” offshore: at the end of 2014, Pfizer had $74 billion in offshore cash, fourth highest among the Fortune 500.
What makes Pfizer’s tax dodging especially galling is that its U.S. business plan heavily depends on federal government support. Over the past five years, Pfizer has received more than $5 billion in government contracts, each year making the list of the top 100 government contractors. In addition, Pfizer has profited directly from government-funded research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and rakes in billions of taxpayer dollars via government healthcare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
We don’t know how much of the company’s $74 billion is sitting in its Cayman Islands subsidiary, nor do we know whether the company has paid even a dime of tax on its offshore cash because the company refuses to disclose this information. But it’s a safe bet that if the company’s latest inversion attempt is successful, in practice Pfizer will remain as American as it’s always been since it was founded on U.S. soil in 1849.