US all talk, no action on tackling corporate inversion

Cantillon: no appetite in fractured US Congress to tackle tax-avoidance strategy

US president Barack Obama: denounced corporate inversion as “unpatriotic” and referring to companies availing of the practice as “deserters”. Photograph: Saul Loeb/The New York Times

US president Barack Obama: denounced corporate inversion as “unpatriotic” and referring to companies availing of the practice as “deserters”. Photograph: Saul Loeb/The New York Times

 

Having ramped up the rhetoric, it appears that the United States will once again fail to deliver. As the OECD is due today to publish its report on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (Beps) and the digital economy, it is becoming clear that the increasingly fractured US Congress has no appetite to address corporate inversion.

Inversion, which allows companies to cut their tax bills by buying a company in another country with a lower tax rate and moving their corporate domicile there, has been a high-profile issue in the US this year.

The $42.9 billion move by medical device giant Medtronic to acquire Ireland-based rival Covidien seemed almost to wake US leaders to the notion of inversion. Of course, the origins of Covidien gave the lie to that notion.

The Irish company was itself an Irish domiciled spin-off from Tyco, which caused a storm the late 1990s when it relocated from mainland US to Bermuda.

Inversion is perfectly within the parameters of the labyrinthine US tax code. That didn’t stop President Obama denouncing such practices as “unpatriotic” and referring to companies availing of the practice as “deserters”.

It is not difficult to see why Ireland might feel the heat. A table recently compiled for the Financial Times notes that 13 inversion deals have been announced since the start of 2013. Of these, nine involve Ireland, with the others going to the Netherlands (2), the UK and Canada.

With tension rising ahead of crucial mid-term elections in November, congressional aides have said there will be no legislative action until after the polls.

The administration is widely expected to announce executive action as early as this week to curb such deals. However, even treasury secretary Jack Lew admits it is no replacement for legislation.

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