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Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton outlined a new plan to combat the growth of inversions, a loophole through which U.S. companies pretend to be foreign in order to avoid taxes. Taken together, her plan to enact an exit tax, limit earnings stripping and to change the ownership threshold for becoming a foreign company would likely stop inversions in their tracks. Unfortunately, Clinton’s inversion plan also includes a fiscally imprudent proposal to use all of the added revenue from shutting down inversions to pay for new corporate tax breaks.
Clinton’s inversion proposals come in the midst of the growing outrage over Pfizer’s plan to pursue the largest inversion in history. Unless action is taken, Pfizer will use a merger with the company Allergan to shift its headquarters, on paper, to Ireland, which some say could allow it to avoid paying U.S. taxes on as much as $148 billion in earnings that it is holding offshore. To be clear, Pfizer will continue to be managed in the U.S. and will still benefit from government contracts and services. But inverting will allow the company to get out of paying its fair share of taxes.
While some in Congress are weirdly using inversions as an excuse to call for lower taxes on multinational corporations, Clinton’s proposals show that inversions can easily be stopped without broader tax reform or tax cuts. For example, Clinton has proposed to curb earnings stripping, a practice in which a U.S. subsidiary is loaded up with debt and makes large interest payments to its foreign parent company in order to lower its U.S. income taxes. By inverting, companies can more easily use earnings stripping to shift income earned in the U.S. into offshore low-tax jurisdictions. Clinton’s plan apparently follows President Obama’s approach in this area, by limiting the share of interest expense that can be deducted by the U.S. subsidiary. Obama’s proposal would raise about $50 billion over 10 years.
Clinton has also proposed to limit inversions by treating a company resulting from a merger of a U.S. and a foreign company to be recognized as having a foreign tax domicile only if the resulting company is majority owned by shareholders of the foreign rather than U.S. company. Under current regulations, only 20 percent of the new company has to be owned by the foreign shareholders. This allows U.S. companies to merge with substantially smaller foreign companies and move their tax domicile. This proposal would raise an estimated $17 billion in tax revenue over 10 years.
Clinton’s third and potentially most powerful proposal to curb inversions would impose an “exit tax” on companies that change their tax domicile to a foreign jurisdiction. The exit tax would require companies to pay the U.S. taxes they have “deferred” on their accumulated untaxed foreign income. Clinton does not specify what rate her exit tax would impose, but the ideal rate would be the full 35 percent rate (minus foreign tax credits) that companies would normally owe upon repatriation.
As noted above, combating inversions would not only make our tax system fairer, but it could also produce desperately needed revenue. The bitter fights over how to pay for even popular spending like sequester relief or the highway bill show that our country has a huge revenue problem, which is largely driven by the irresponsible decision to make permanent 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts, at a cost of $3.3 trillion over a decade.
Sadly, however, Clinton is not proposing to use any revenue generated by closing the inversion loophole to make new public investments (or reduce the deficit). Instead, she proposes to use all of the revenue gained from inversion reform to give new tax breaks to corporations! This does not make any sense considering that U.S. corporate taxes are already near historic lows. Like so many others, she seems to miss the point of why we need corporate tax reform.