At the White House on Dec. 15, business executives asked President Obama for a tax holiday that would help them tap more than $1 trillion of offshore earnings, much of it sitting in island tax havens.
The money -- including hundreds of billions in profits that U.S. companies attribute to overseas subsidiaries to avoid taxes -- is supposed to be taxed at up to 35 percent when it’s brought home, or “repatriated.” Executives including John T. Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc. say a tax break would return a flood of cash and boost the economy.
What nobody’s saying publicly is that U.S. multinationals are already finding legal ways to avoid that tax. Over the years, they’ve brought cash home, tax-free, employing strategies with nicknames worthy of 1970s conspiracy thrillers -- including “the Killer B” and “the Deadly D.”
Merck & Co Inc., the second-largest drugmaker in the U.S., last year brought more than $9 billion from abroad without paying any U.S. tax to help finance its acquisition of Schering-Plough Corp., securities filings show. Merck is also appealing a federal judge’s 2009 finding that Schering-Plough owed taxes on $690 million it had earlier brought home from overseas tax-free.
The largest drugmaker, Pfizer Inc., imported more than $30 billion from offshore in connection with its acquisition of Wyeth last year, while taking steps to minimize the tax hit on its publicly reported profit.
Disclosures in Switzerland and Delaware by Eli Lilly & Co. show the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company carried out many of the steps for a tax-free importation of foreign cash after its roughly $6 billion purchase of ImClone Systems Inc. in 2008.
‘Trivially Small Taxes’
“Sophisticated U.S. companies are routinely repatriating hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign earnings and paying trivially small U.S. taxes on those repatriations,” said Edward D. Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “They devote enormous resources first to moving income to tax havens, and then to bringing those profits back to the U.S. at the lowest possible tax cost.”
With the exception of the Schering-Plough case, no authority has accused Merck or Pfizer or Lilly of paying less tax than they should have. While corporations have no obligation to pay any more than the legal minimum, “the question is what should that minimum be?” said Kleinbard, a former corporate tax attorney at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and former chief of staff at the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
U.S. companies overall use various repatriation strategies to avoid about $25 billion a year in federal income taxes, he said.
‘Best of Worlds’
“The current U.S. international tax system is the best of all worlds for U.S. multinationals,” said David S. Miller, a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in New York. That’s because the companies can defer federal income taxes by shifting profits into low-tax jurisdictions abroad, and then use foreign tax credits to shelter those earnings from U.S. tax when they repatriate them, he said.
They’re aided by a cadre of attorneys, accountants and investment bankers in the tax-planning industry -- such as a panel of KPMG LLP tax advisers who held forth in a chilly hotel ballroom at a Philadelphia conference last month. There, they discussed a series of techniques for multinationals to return cash from overseas while avoiding or deferring the taxes.
KPMG tax advisers Kevin Glenn and Tom Zollo used slides to describe several methods. One diagram resembled a schematic from the Manhattan Project. Another strategy would require certain “bells and whistles” to convince regulators of an actual non-tax business purpose, Glenn explained.
Cat and Mouse
Such maneuvers reflect a decades-long cat-and-mouse game. As regulators and lawmakers tighten the rules, companies seek new, legal methods for getting around them. One of the techniques the KPMG advisers discussed was in response to loophole-closers Congress passed in August to address a projected $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit. The changes will make it harder for companies to manipulate the credits they get for taxes paid overseas.
“Some of the best minds in the country are spent all day, every day, wheedling nickels and dimes out of the tax system,” said H. David Rosenbloom, an attorney at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, D.C., and director of the international tax program at New York University’s school of law.
Chambers, Cisco’s chief executive officer, brought up a repatriation break during the White House meeting, according to a person familiar with the discussion. It could reprise a 2004 tax holiday that allowed multinationals to return profits to the U.S. at a tax rate of 5.25 percent. U.S. corporations brought home $362 billion, with $312 billion qualifying for the relief, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Such a move “is a short-term fix to a long-term problem, which is the uncompetitive U.S. tax structure,” said Cisco spokeswoman Jennifer Greeson Dunn. The San Jose, California-based company reported $31.6 billion of undistributed foreign earnings, on which it had paid no U.S. taxes, as of July 31.
President Obama, who campaigned in part against companies’ use of offshore havens to avoid U.S. taxes, asked Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to follow up on the issue with business leaders, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.
The argument that a new tax break for offshore earnings would generate a domestic stimulus “holds no water at all,” said Joel B. Slemrod, an economics professor at the University of Michigan’s school of business and former senior tax economist for President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. U.S. companies are already sitting on a record pile of cash -- $1.9 trillion in liquid assets, according to Federal Reserve data.
“The fact that they have these cash hoards suggests that investment is not being constrained by lack of cash,” Slemrod said.
U.S. multinationals boost earnings by shifting income out of the country via transfer pricing, a system that allows them to allocate costs to subsidiaries in high-tax countries and profits to tax havens. Google Inc., for example, cut its taxes by $3.1 billion in the last three years by moving most of the income it attributed overseas ultimately to Bermuda, Bloomberg News reported in October.
The tax benefits from such profit shifting can have a greater impact on share price than boosting sales or cutting other expenses, since the reduced rate goes straight to the bottom line, said John P. Kennedy, a partner at Deloitte Tax LLP, speaking at the conference in Philadelphia Nov. 3.
Boosting Share Prices
For a hypothetical company that has 1,000 shares outstanding, has pretax income of $5,000 and trades at 20 times earnings, cutting just 2 percentage points off the rate could drive the share price up $2, Kennedy said.
“You may think two bucks isn’t much, but when you’re the CFO and she has 100,000 options, that’s pretty interesting,” he said. He cited large pharmaceutical and biotech companies, including Merck, Amgen Inc. and Eli Lilly, which have reported effective income tax rates at least 10 percentage points below the statutory 35 percent rate.
The bottom line: The effective tax rate “is, and will continue to be, the metric that is used to judge your performance,” he told the audience of corporate tax accountants and attorneys.
U.S. drugmakers shift profits overseas far in excess of actual sales there. In 2008, large U.S. pharmaceutical companies reported about four-fifths of their pre-tax income abroad, up from about a third in 1997, according to a March article in the journal Tax Notes by Martin A. Sullivan, a contributing editor and former U.S. Treasury Department tax economist. Their actual foreign sales grew more slowly, to 52 percent from 38 percent.
Deloitte’s Kennedy warned that booking large portions of income overseas can mean “you are going to strand so much cash offshore that your business chokes.” That’s because the foreign profits cannot be used for such purposes as building domestic factories without triggering federal tax. Overall, U.S. companies reported more than $1 trillion in such “indefinitely reinvested earnings” offshore at the end of 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Last year, Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, tapped its offshore cash, tax-free, to pay for just over half the cash portion of its $51 billion merger with Schering-Plough, according to company filings.
At the deal’s closing, Merck’s foreign subsidiaries lent $9.4 billion to a pair of Schering-Plough Dutch units. Then the Dutch companies used those funds to repay a pre-existing loan from their U.S. parent, securities filings show. The $9.4 billion ended up with Schering-Plough shareholders as part of the cash owed under the merger, according to the company’s disclosure.
No Tax Hit
Bottom line: Merck used its overseas cash to pay the former Schering-Plough shareholders -- with no U.S. tax hit. In considering whether companies owe taxes in such cases, the IRS often asks whether payments from an offshore unit constitute a dividend, which would be taxable.
In Merck’s case, it arguably could be, said Robert Willens, who runs an independent firm that advises investors on tax issues.
“Merck was obligated to pay Schering-Plough shareholders and they tapped into the funds of their overseas subsidiaries to do it,” he said. “You’d have to be concerned about a constructive dividend there.”
Merck objected to any characterization of the payment as a dividend. “We don’t think the characterization is accurate and we remain confident with our tax position,” said Steven Campanini, a company spokesman.
In the Schering-Plough case decided last year, the drugmaker brought home $690 million tax-free as a result of assigning its rights to income from a complex interest-rate swap to a foreign subsidiary in the 1990s. A judge found the company “failed to establish a genuine purpose for the transactions other than tax avoidance” and said Schering-Plough was not entitled to $473 million in back taxes in dispute. Merck is appealing the judgment.
Even when companies pay large tax bills to import their foreign profits, they find ways to minimize the impact on the earnings they show investors. Last year, New York-based Pfizer repatriated more than $30 billion from offshore to help pay for its $64 billion purchase of Wyeth, according to company disclosures and a person familiar with the transaction.
The acquisition created a so-called deferred tax liability on Pfizer’s balance sheet of about $25 billion, according to securities filings, in part to allow for an anticipated tax hit on the earnings that would be repatriated.
Impact Wiped Out
While bringing home more than $30 billion helped generate a $10 billion tax obligation, Pfizer was able to draw down $10 billion of its new deferred liability through its income statement. Doing so wiped out the tax impact of the repatriation on its earnings reported to shareholders.
So while the company paid a real tax bill to the U.S. government stemming from the repatriation, that tax payment had limited impact on its publicly reported profits.
Pfizer made use of a legal accounting quirk that allowed it to set up the deferred liability on its balance sheet, but reverse part of that liability through its income statement, said Edmund Outslay, a professor of tax accounting at Michigan State University.
“Had Pfizer repatriated these earnings independently of the purchase of Wyeth, it would have incurred a huge tax charge” on its income statement, Outslay said. “So through the magic of purchase accounting, you create an opportunity to bring this money home while mitigating its impact on your effective tax rate.”
Effective Tax Rate
Pfizer spokeswoman Joan Campion said the $10 billion tax hit was indeed erased on the income statement because of the accounting treatment, but noted that the company’s effective tax rate rose in 2009 in part because Wyeth’s overseas profits were repatriated to help finance the deal.
Other strategies based on acquisitions have achieved nickname status among corporate tax advisers.
The “Killer B” maneuver is named for section 368(a)(1)(B) of the Internal Revenue Code, which deals with tax-free reorganizations. A U.S. company using the technique would sell its shares to an offshore subsidiary, bringing cash back to the U.S. tax-free. The offshore unit could then use the stock to make an acquisition. In 2006, the IRS issued a notice aimed at shutting down the maneuver.
Using a Variation
International Business Machines Corp. used a variation on the technique in May 2007, with an offshore unit purchasing the shares from a trio of banks, according to a company securities filing. That permutation wasn’t covered by the IRS in 2006. Two days after IBM’s disclosure, the agency announced plans for additional rule changes addressing stock sales to subsidiaries from shareholders as well as directly from parent companies.
The “Deadly D,” also named for a section of tax law, allows a U.S. company to attach the high tax basis in a newly acquired company to one of its existing foreign units. In some cases, doing so enables the U.S. parent to pull cash from the subsidiary up to the amount of the recent purchase price tax-free. The Obama administration has proposed changing the provision that enables the maneuver.
Lilly closed on its purchase of ImClone in November 2008. The next month, the newly acquired company converted to an LLC and Lilly transferred the investment to its main Swiss subsidiary, Eli Lilly SA, according to disclosures in Switzerland and Delaware. The transfer was in exchange for a $5.8 billion note payable to the U.S. parent company due at the end of 2011.
Willens, the independent tax adviser, said the steps indicated a likely D reorganization, or another method “to extract earnings from overseas without tax consequences -- of course.” Lilly had no comment beyond its filings, said David P. Lewis, the company’s vice president for global taxes.
The KPMG panel discussion in Philadelphia, called “Global Cash Tax Management Plans and Repatriation Planning,” dissected other techniques, including one that took six slides to explain. It works like this:
Soon after a U.S. multinational has purchased another U.S. company, the new unit promises to pay the parent a large amount of cash pursuant to a note agreement. Since both parties are U.S. companies, there is no tax bill for the parent under current U.S. law.
Then the new acquisition converts to a foreign company. So when the payment pursuant to the note is made, it comes from overseas. That means the foreign cash is treated as a nontaxable payment under the note, instead of a taxable dividend.
The newly converted foreign subsidiary could access the multinational’s existing offshore cash by borrowing from a foreign sister unit, said Glenn, the KPMG tax partner. He and Zollo were joined by colleague Frank Mattei, as well as Don Whitt, a Pfizer tax official.
“This basic transaction is something that at least a couple of taxpayers have done, and I know a number of others have evaluated,” Glenn said. The strategy’s name follows the alphabetic tradition of Bs and Ds. It’s called “the Outbound F.”