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As the nation’s capital remained blanketed in nearly two feet of powdery snow Monday, Wisconsin-based manufacturer Johnson Controls announced its own attempt at a snow job: a proposed corporate inversion with Ireland-based Tyco (yes, that Tyco), which would move Johnson’s corporate headquarters, at least on paper, from Milwaukee to Ireland. A representative of the firm told the New York Times that while the plan will yield $150 million a year in tax benefits, the proposed merger is driven by “the operating potential of the two companies.”
Johnson Controls, like every other company that has shifted its corporate address to a tax haven locale, is downplaying the tax benefits.
It’s not immediately obvious why the company would need to make the shift as it routinely pays far less than the statutory 35 percent federal corporate tax rate. Between 2010 and 2014, Johnson reported just over $6 billion in U.S. pretax income, and it paid a federal income tax rate averaging just 12.2 percent over this period. This is actually lower than the 12.5 percent tax rate Ireland applies to most corporate profits.
But scratching just beneath the surface, the billions of reasons the company is seeking to renounce its U.S. citizenship are more apparent. At the end of 2014, Johnson Controls disclosed holding $8.1 billion of its profits as permanently reinvested foreign income, profits it has declared it intends to keep offshore indefinitely. Johnson discloses very little information about the location of its foreign subsidiaries, and refuses to disclose how much (if any) foreign tax has been paid on these offshore profits. But if the company is stashing these profits (at least on paper) in a zero-rate tax haven such as the Cayman Islands, then the tax stakes for Johnson could indeed be real.
Reincorporating abroad would allow Johnson Controls to avoid ever paying a dime in U.S. income tax on profits currently stashed in tax havens. And if the experience of prior inversions is any guide, an Irish-headquartered Johnson Controls will likely move aggressively to artificially shift even more of its U.S. profits into low-rate tax havens.
Johnson Controls, like the other recent high-profile inversion Pfizer, reaps substantial dollars from U.S. taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2014, Johnson and its subsidiaries received more than $1 billion in federal contracts—more than $210 million a year. And all indications are that post inversion Johnson will still act about as American as it’s always been. Corporate leaders are telling worried Wisconsinites that “we’ll remain committed to Milwaukee,” leaving the company’s operational headquarters in that city. Incredibly, this is the same path followed by the company’s inversion partner: Tyco was one of the first inverters over two decades ago, moving first to Bermuda and then Ireland, and even now the company maintains its operational headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey.
Yesterday presidential candidate Bernie Sanders berated Johnson Controls as “deserters,” arguing that “If you want the advantages of being an American company then you can’t run away from America to avoid paying taxes.” Sanders has introduced aggressive legislation to end offshoring of corporate profits. Hillary Clinton similarly called out Johnson Controls and has proposed an “exit tax” along with a few other targeted proposals designed to reduce the incentive for companies invert.
Republican candidates have defended corporate tax deserters and proposed rewarding tax dodging by cutting the statutory corporate tax rate—a rate the companies like Johnson Controls don’t even come close to paying as it is.
Proposing to cut the corporate tax as a solution to the inversions is problematic, for obvious reasons, the most obvious being that in a deficit environment, tax cut proposals should include pay fors.
The more fundamental problem with cutting the corporate rate is that as long as it’s possible for corporations to easily shift their profits into zero-tax jurisdictions, reducing the U.S. corporate rate will never put a stop to corporate inversions. Even if Congress could find a fiscally responsible way to drop the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent—a cut that would require eliminating virtually every existing corporate tax break—25 percent is still a lot bigger than zero. The real solution must be taking away the incentive for corporations to reach for the zero tax rate by ending the ability of companies to indefinitely defer tax on their U.S. profits by using accounting fictions to pretend they’re being earned offshore.