Inverting tax policy

Tuesday , August 05, 2014 - 9:30 AM

Washington Post Editorial Board

One campaign 2014 kerfuffle concerns the previously arcane issue of “inversion,” the process by which a U.S. corporation merges with a foreign one so as to pay taxes at the other country’s lower rates. If ever a tax loophole were designed to provoke inflammatory rhetoric, this is it. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., labeled a recent wave of corporate reflaggings a “plague.” For their part, Republicans are playing this as a simple story of corporate escape from the allegedly oppressive U.S. corporate tax rate.

Both sides have a point. It takes chutzpah for U.S. corporations to claim foreign identities so they can pay less to finance the U.S. patent laws and other government protections from which they benefit. But when the United States taxes corporate income at the highest rate among major developed nations, 35 percent, it’s unrealistic to expect multinational firms to adhere to “patriotism” rather than their bottom-line interests.

Lew’s plan seeks to end inversions, at a potential savings of $19.5 billion over the next decade. But the means he has chosen — raising the minimum foreign ownership of newly merged companies to 50 percent — would probably prove no more permanent than the previous minimum of 20 percent. The unintended consequence could be to decrease the number of mergers while increasing their size, as tax expert Mihir Desai of Harvard Law School told the Senate Finance Committee at a July 22 hearing.

Prof. Michael Graetz of Columbia Law School proposes cutting the corporate tax rate to 15 percent and taxing dividends at the (higher) rate for ordinary income (with an offsetting credit for taxes paid at the corporate level so as not to hurt the stock market). To be sure, Graetz’s idea is not meant to be viewed in isolation but as part of a larger tax overhaul plan that would also raise revenue via consumption taxes. Still, it illustrates the point that a truly durable reform would make it cost-effective for U.S. firms to stay, not prohibit them from leaving. Congress and the Obama administration should turn to that task when, or if, the political furies die down.

Get the Standard-Examiner Advantage.