The Inverted World of Mobile Capital

BERKELEY – A growing number of American companies are seeking to move their legal headquarters abroad by acquiring or merging with foreign companies. In the latest case, Medtronics plans to acquire Irish-based Covidien, a much smaller company spun off by US-based Tyco, and move its legal headquarters to low-tax Ireland, culminating in the largest ever “inversion” or “redomiciliation” of a US company. Walgreens is reportedly considering moving its headquarters to the United Kingdom by acquiring the remaining public shares of Alliance Boots, the Swiss-based pharmacy giant.

Such deals reflect the deep flaws in the United States’ corporate tax system. The US has the highest statutory corporate tax rate among developed countries and is the only G-7 country clinging to an outmoded worldwide tax system under which the foreign profits earned by US-headquartered companies incur additional domestic taxes when they are repatriated.

By contrast, all other G-7 countries have adopted “territorial” systems that impose little or no domestic tax on the repatriated earnings of their global companies. This difference puts US-headquartered multinationals at a disadvantage relative to their foreign competitors in foreign locations. To offset this, US multinationals take advantage of a deferral option in US tax law.

Deferral allows them to postpone – potentially indefinitely – the payment of US corporate tax on their foreign earnings until they are repatriated. Not surprisingly, as their foreign earnings have grown as a share of total earnings, and as foreign corporate tax rates have plummeted, US companies’ stock of foreign earnings held abroad has soared, now topping $2 trillion.