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Hundreds of Fortune 500 corporations routinely lower their federal tax bills by taking advantage of a tax break that allows them to write off executive compensation in the form of stock options.
As we have noted previously, the tax break has allowed giant tech firms such as Facebook, Microsoft and Apple to substantially reduce their effective tax rates by claiming “expenses” they never actually paid.
But newly released annual financial reports show that the problem goes beyond American firms: a number of formerly U.S.-based companies that have inverted (that is, filed paperwork to claim their headquarters are overseas) continue to claim these U.S. tax breaks for their executives’ pay. In other words, not only have many inverted companies shifted their headquarters to low-tax countries to avoid having the U.S. as their primary residence for tax purposes, they are still using every trick and loophole available to avoid paying taxes on U.S. profits.
Endo Pharmaceuticals is a textbook case. The company formally inverted to Ireland in 2014, but its executives stayed stateside. The company now appears to be enjoying the best of both worlds, pretending its profits are being earned in Ireland while claiming lavish U.S. tax breaks for the stock options given to its executives.
Endo International, as the company now styles itself, discloses in its latest annual financial report that the company has reduced its U.S. taxes by more than $50 million over the last two years using the executive-stock-option tax break.
And Endo’s not alone. A number of other inverted companies still appear to be claiming U.S. tax breaks for their executives’ stock options. Horizon Pharma, the Illinois corporation that has claimed Irish residency since 2014, enjoyed $19 million in stock option tax breaks in 2015.
The same tax breaks are also still being claimed by companies that renounced their U.S. citizenship prior to the most recent wave of inversions. Eaton has enjoyed $50 million in stock-option tax breaks in the three years since its 2012 inversion. In the five years since Valeant Pharmaceuticals decamped to Canada, the company has disclosed $80 million of stock option tax breaks. Herbalife, whose L.A.-based executives have been pretending to run their company from the Cayman Islands since 2002, discloses $86 million in stock option tax breaks over the past five years.
Covidien, the “Irish” company with a strong Boston accent, claimed $76 million in stock option tax breaks over the last two years of its existence before merging with Medtronic in that company’s own inversion. And Medtronic itself, in its first annual report as an Irish entity, discloses $81 million in tax savings from the executive stock option tax break.
The most sensible reform step for Congress would be to pare back this tax giveaway for U.S. corporations as well as inverted companies, so that all companies will pay something resembling their fair share. But it’s hard to see how anyone can think it’s a good idea that companies that have renounced their U.S. citizenship, at least on paper, should be able to claim tax breaks for the lavish stock options given to the very executives who, in some cases, were responsible for the companies’ inversion decisions.