The hot tax-dodging business trend of the summer is inversion. A U.S. company buys a company in a country with a lower corporate tax rate, relocates its headquarters there and funnels its income through the new head office. As long as it does not repatriate profits, the self-exiled company can avoid paying U.S. corporate taxes.
The United States is the only country that taxes its citizens on their worldwide income. Wherever you earn money, the Internal Revenue Service wants a slice of it. But if, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said and U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled in Burwell v Hobby Lobby and Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, corporations are people, shouldn’t the converse be true? Why can’t all Americans relocate their places of domicile abroad and dodge taxes just like a company?
If only it were that easy.
Let’s take it one step at a time. There has been considerable alarm at U.S. companies’ rush to the exits. Under a fiduciary duty to maximize dividends and share prices for stockholders, businesses are seeking to avoid the 35 percent federal corporate income tax they are liable for here. Many American business leaders believe high corporate tax rates put their companies at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. As do many business-leaning, tax-hating and federal government-loathing politicians.
If you add local and state taxes, U.S. corporations pay tax on their income at a nominal rate of 40 percent, far more than many other countries. Britain, for example, has a similar economy but its top corporate tax rate is just 21 percent. Germany, which also has a successful, mature economy, levies its companies at nearly 30 percent. While few U.S. companies end up paying this nominal rate, since they offset various expenses, exemptions are much the same in comparable economies. This disparity tends to beggar American businesses and discourage domestic investment, which means fewer U.S. jobs.
Hence the clamor to relocate. Eight major companies are planning to nominally move -- though not actually transfer their bricks-and-mortar businesses -- to low-tax countries in the next 12 months, joining about 41 U.S. companies who have already done so since 1982. All they have to do is buy a foreign company at least 25 percent their size and, on paper at least, they become a foreign entity -- and avoid the U.S. corporate tax.