Yet another American company has announced its intention to carry out a corporate inversion, a fancy term for buying a smaller company, completing some paper work and, for tax purposes, declaring its new headquarters are in a foreign nation.
This time it’s Terex, a Connecticut-based heavy equipment and crane manufacturer, which just announced a proposed deal to purchase a Nordic rival and become a resident of Finland. But if it is doing it for tax purposes, as appears the motivation for most corporate inversions, the most likely reason is not Finland’s 20 percent corporate tax rate.
Like many Fortune 500 corporations, Terex has little reason to complain about the 35 percent statutory U.S. corporate tax rate since it pays nothing near that much. In the past three years, Terex has enjoyed $774 million in U.S. pretax income and has paid just $84 million in federal income taxes on those profits or, a federal tax rate averaging just 10.8 percent. This is just about half the 20 percent statutory rate applied by Finland.
Finland’s tax rate is likely not Terex’s motivation for inverting. But there is another, more unsavory way in which taxes might figure into this story: the company’s large and growing cash stash. At the end of 2014, Terex disclosed holding $800 million of its profits as permanently reinvested foreign income, profits it has declared it intends to keep offshore indefinitely. If the company is stashing these profits (at least on paper) in a zero-rate tax haven such as the Cayman Islands—a clear possibility, given the existence of its “Genie Cayman Holdings” subsidiary and similarly named shell corporations in the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda—then the tax stakes for Terex could indeed be real. Reincorporating abroad would allow Terex to avoid ever paying a dime in U.S. income tax on any profits in these tax havens. And if the experience of prior inversions is any guide, a Finland-headquartered Terex will likely move aggressively to artificially shift even more of its U.S. profits into low-rate tax havens.
The case of Terex and its proposed move to Finland negates arguments by some U.S. lawmakers who claim that United States should lower its statutory tax rate to prevent companies from renouncing their citizenship. Terex has paid a 10.8 percent effective rate over three years. How much lower should its tax rate be?
The truth is, for companies seeking to avoid paying their fair share, zero percent will always be a very attractive tax rate. Rather than trying to stem the flow of inversions by cutting the U.S. tax rate closer to Finland’s, Congress should remove the incentive for corporations to shift their profits to beach island tax havens by repealing the loophole that allows companies to indefinitely defer paying U.S. tax by using accounting fictions to pretend their profits are earned offshore. Such a move would likely put an immediate stop to the inversion trend and would make our tax system fairer to boot.