After announcing Ohio-based Steris Co.’s plans to become British for tax purposes on Monday, CEO Walter Rosenbrough later said on a conference call, “We’re not typically users of aggressive tax policies and I don’t think we are here.”
That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. But even a cursory look at the company’s financial reports tells another story. Like so many other U.S.-based multinational companies, Steris pays nowhere near the 35 percent statutory federal rate. But early coverage has pointed to Steris’s potential financial benefits due to Britain’s lower 21 percent statutory tax rate.
A Bloomberg story estimates that Steris “set aside about 32 percent of its pretax earnings to pay taxes” over the past three years, and the Wall Street Journal pegs the company’s most recent tax rate at 31.3 percent. This, of course, provides much fodder for anti-corporate tax advocates who argue inversions and other tax shenanigans are justified because the U.S. corporate tax is too high and is what’s driving Steris (and other poor, defenseless health care giants and multinationals) to abandon their U.S. citizenship.
But Steris isn’t writing a check for 32 percent of its profits to the U.S. government. The Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal numbers are both worldwide tax rates. This means the figure includes income earned in other nations, and the foreign taxes the company paid on those earnings. It also includes not just the current taxes the company actually pays in each year, but also deferred taxes, which the company does not pay.
The tax rates that actually matter in the debate over corporate inversions—the current federal taxes, as a share of pretax U.S. profits, that Steris reports each year— paint a starkly different story. Steris’s average tax rate for the last three years was 16.3 percent, less than half the 35 percent statutory federal income tax rate that the company presumably uses at least some of its lobbying muscle to complain about.
In fact, over the same three-year period, Steris reported a foreign tax rate of 28.5 percent, which is well above its 16.3 percent U.S. tax rate. All of this suggests that Steris’s activities in developed nations with real tax systems around the world are generally being taxed at rates at or above those it faces in the U.S.
As we noted Tuesday, it’s clear that prior to its announced inversion, Steris already engaged in foreign tax hijinks, contrary to its CEO’s claims that the company doesn’t aggressively exploit tax policies to its maximum benefit.
Even though about 75 percent of the company’s profits and revenues are earned in the United States, and roughly 90 percent of its assets are stateside as well, the company discloses, in a Houdini-esque flourish, that fully 94 percent of its worldwide cash somehow now resides outside the country, possibly in its tax-haven subsidiaries in the British Virgin Islands and Mauritius.
And that’s probably what Steris’ inversion is all about: the company has gradually accumulated $222 million in offshore cash, much of which is likely U.S. profits in disguise, on which it would prefer to not pay any U.S. tax.
More than three weeks ago, the U.S. Treasury Department announced regulations intended to crack down on corporations seeking to invert to dodge U.S. taxes. But the Obama Administration can only do so much through regulatory action. Congress should take steps to make sure that Steris’s offshore profits—much of which may be untaxed—and offshore profits of other companies seeking to renounce their citizenship are brought back to the United States and fairly taxed.