Insight on inversions

8 things to know about corporate tax relocations

A Burger King restaurant is seen on W. 26th Street in Millcreek Township, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Burger King struck an $11 billion deal to buy Tim Hortons that would create the world's third largest fast-food company and could make the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain more of a household name around the world. (AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Christopher Millette)

A Burger King restaurant is seen on W. 26th Street in Millcreek Township, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Burger King struck an $11 billion deal to buy Tim Hortons that would create the world's third largest fast-food company and could make the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain more of a household name around the world. (AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Christopher Millette)

WASHINGTON — Burger King plans to become the latest U.S. company to shift its legal address out of the country by merging with a foreign company. Burger King has announced plans to buy Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain.

Burger King’s operations will stay in Miami. But the corporate headquarters of the new company will be in Canada.

The transaction is called a corporate inversion, a maneuver that is becoming popular among companies looking to lower their tax bills.

Eight things to know about corporate inversions:

What is corporate inversion?

An inversion happens when a U.S. corporation and a foreign company merge, with the new parent company based in the foreign country. For tax purposes, the U.S. company becomes foreign-owned, even if all the executives and operations stay in the U.S.

Why invert

There can be many business reasons for two companies to merge. The decision to incorporate the new parent company in a foreign country can generate significant tax savings over time.

The U.S. has the highest corporate income tax rate in the industrialized world, at 35 percent. The U.S. is also the only developed country that taxes corporate profits earned abroad. Foreign profits are subject to U.S. taxes once they are brought to the U.S., though corporations can deduct any foreign taxes paid.

Companies that become foreign-owned don’t have to worry about the Internal Revenue Service trying to tax the profits they make abroad.

Most U.S. corporations pay federal income taxes at rates much lower than 35 percent because the tax code is filled with breaks for businesses. Inversions open the door for even more.

Stripping

Inverted corporations must still pay U.S. taxes on the profits they earn in the U.S. However, they can lower their U.S. tax bills through a maneuver called “earnings stripping.”

Here is how it works: The new foreign parent company “lends” money to the U.S. firm, which must pay it back. The U.S. firm then deducts the interest payments it makes to the parent company, reducing its taxable profits — “stripping” them from its balance sheet.

“You haven’t raised any new money,” said Robert Willen, a New York-based tax adviser. “All you’ve done is literally out of thin air, you’ve created a debt obligation on which the U.S. company is the debtor and the foreign parent is the creditor.”

“Hopscotching”

Many U.S.-based corporations are hoarding money overseas, either to invest abroad or to shield it from U.S. taxes. Experts say the total amount could exceed $2 trillion.

If a foreign subsidiary sends profits directly to a U.S. corporation, the U.S. firm must pay taxes on it. However, if those profits are funneled through a foreign parent company that was formed through an inversion, the money can be invested in the U.S. without paying U.S. taxes.

The technique is called “hopscotching” because the money — at least on paper — bounces from country to country while avoiding U.S. taxes.

How big is the issue?

Nearly 50 U.S. companies have inverted in the past decade, and more are considering it, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The recent wave of inversions has been dominated by health care companies, including drugmaker AbbVie, which has announced plans to merge with a drug company incorporated in Britain. Walgreen Co. had been considering an inversion, but the nation’s largest drugstore company announced in early August that it will no longer pursue one.

What has Congress done?

In 2004, Congress tried to curb inversions by saying U.S. companies couldn’t escape U.S. taxes by simply reincorporating abroad, with the same shareholders and executives running the new company. Instead, Congress passed a law saying that in order to become a foreign-owned corporation, U.S. companies must merge with a foreign partner, even if the foreign partner is much smaller.

Will Congress do more?

Several Democrats in Congress have announced bills to make it harder for U.S. corporations to invert. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was working with key Senate Republicans in an effort to come up with a bipartisan response.

President Barack Obama included provisions in his 2015 budget request to limit inversions. The president has renewed his push in recent weeks.

But in the current political climate, it’s hard to see House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the Obama White House all agreeing on a fix. We’re talking about taxes, and Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much when it comes to taxes.

Can Obama act alone?

The Treasury Department says it is “reviewing a broad range of authorities for possible administrative actions that could limit the ability of companies to engage in inversions, as well as approaches that could meaningfully reduce the tax benefits after inversions take place.”

Experts are divided over how much Treasury can do without action by Congress.

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