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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jon Stewart nails corporate tax inversions

Last night Jon Stewart (h/t BruinKid) went after tax inversion with style, showing up Republican hypocrisy on welfare programs vs. "corporate welfare," all the subsidies one company has received from multiple levels of government, government contracts, and government-funded research. His primary target was Mylan, a Pennsylvania-based generic drugmaker. Mylan, as Ron Fournier recently pointed out, has as its chief executive officer Heather Bresch, the daughter of West Virgina Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin now says inversions should be illegal, according to Fournier in a follow-up article.

As Stewart shows, while Republicans are outraged by one person apparently abusing the Food Stamp program while mainly surfing in California, they all cheer inversions, at least on Fox News. Mylan has benefited from millions in government subsidies and billions in government contracts. But it has to move to the Netherlands anyway. Stewart concludes that since corporations have been people only since the 2010 Citizens United decision, they are just toddlers and we need to be firm with them: "You're grounded!"


"Inversion of the Money Snatchers"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Medicare report shows Obamacare is bending the cost curve

The 2014 Medicare Trustees Report has just been released, and it shows that the program is on noticeably sounder financial footing than it was just a year ago. One of the biggest signs of this is that the projected depletion date of the Hospital Insurance (Part A) Trust Fund has been pushed back by four years just since last year's report.

Indeed, Sarah Kliff points out that Part A actually spent $600 million less in 2013 than in 2012, even though it insured 1.6 million more people. As she emphasizes, the big news in this is that per capita Medicare Part A spending has been falling. This is a great sign that there is forward movement in controlling the actual cost of care.

Source:, link above

This is a big deal because not only are Baby Boomers like myself inching towards Medicare eligibility in large numbers, but hospitals and other providers (unfortunately, these two groups are merged in OECD statistics) account for most of the excess of US health care spending compared to other industrialized nations. In fact, comparing the United States to Canada, specifically, I found that payments to providers made up 85% of the per capita cost difference between the two countries.

Moreover, as Kliff points out, even when you include Part B and Part D into the calculation, Medicare's per capita cost showed no increase in 2013. Zero.

Indeed, if you want to see a very graphic demonstration in the change in the cost curve, Louise Sheiner and Brendan M. Mochouk of the Brookings Institute (h/t Matt Yglesias) have just what you're looking for.

Source: Brookings Institute, link above

Yes, in just five years, the estimated federal health expenditure has dropped by more than 2 percentage points of GDP by 2035, what would be a difference of $320 billion per year today.

Of course, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cannot take all the credit for this improvement. But, as the Washington Post reported, the law "is slowing payments to Medicare Advantage" and, as also mentioned here, the penalty for hospitals with high re-admission rates has produced a substantial fall in the 30-day re-admission rate, from about 19% in 2011 to less than 18% in 2013. With better care, fewer re-admissions means lower costs.

Thus, while no phenomenon this complex can have a single cause, it is clear that Obamacare is having an impact beyond insuring 10.3 million uninsured, working as designed to improve health outcomes and reduce costs.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stephen Moore (Heritage, of course) can't even get his cherry-picked data right UPDATED

If you have had the stomach to read the malarkey that the Heritage Foundation puts out, you have no doubt noticed that many of their publications are, well, fact-challenged. Just looking back at this blog, there are stories on how Heritage wants us to think poverty is swell, and multiple versions of how Heritage did not pioneer the ideas underlying the Affordable Care Act.

Today, I turn from Obamacare godfather Stuart Butler to the new Heritage chief economist, Stephen Moore. In a great diary at Daily Kos, SantaFeMarie sums up the sordid story of Moore's July 7 column in the Kansas City Star where, trying to defend himself and Arthur Laffer from the well-deserved ire of Paul Krugman, he claims that 0/low-tax states have seen better job growth than high-tax states. In the original article, he wrote:
No-income-tax Texas gained 1 million jobs over the last five years, California, with its 13 percent tax rate, managed to lose jobs. Oops. Florida gained hundreds of thousands of jobs while New York lost jobs. Oops.
I hope you're sitting down. Although this article was written in July 2014 (and the original version, in Investors Business Daily, appeared July 2), the "last five years" Moore is referring to are: December 2007, the first month of the recession, to December 2012. As you no doubt know, employment data is released monthly, with state-by-state numbers available at a one-month lag from the national numbers. So April or May 2014 was available to Moore when he wrote. But he didn't use that 16 or 17 months' worth of data.

Misleading point #1: This choice of dates excludes California's excellent economic performance subsequent to its 2012 tax and minimum wage increases, as Paul Krugman analyzed in his most recent column. As Star editorial writer Yael T. Abouhalkah (who has long covered everything from fiscal policy to tax increment financing) points out, since Moore's ending date of December 2012, California has added 541,000 jobs, while Texas has an additional 523,400. "So, high taxes are good?" he quipped.

Misleading points #2 through #4: Within Moore's chosen "last five years," he still managed to misstate job performance by over 1.2 million jobs. #2: Texas did not gain "1 million jobs," but only 497,400 (off by 502,600). #3: Florida did not gain "hundreds of thousands of jobs," but lost 461,500, just 30,000 less than the much large California economy (off by at least 661,000). #4: And New York did not lose jobs at all, but added 75,900 (off by 75,900, being generous).


On July 24, the Star published a corrected version of Moore's article which, according to Abouhalkah, Moore signed off on. Moore does not acknowledge that the corrections destroy his argument. On Friday afternoon, July 25, I sent a contact form to the editors at Investors Business Daily asking if we could expect a similar correction there. I'll keep you posted.

UPDATE: It's now the evening of July 31, and I have received no response from Investors Business Daily. Nor has Columbia Journalism Review, which reports that the Star's editorial page editor does not plan on using anything from Stephen Moore again (though this could be moot, as she is retiring). And you can see here that there has been no correction made to Moore's original article, which still includes the stats which are 1.2 million jobs off.

Read more here:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fun and games with transfer pricing

ProGrowthLiberal in his comments on my last post and in his own post at EconoSpeak highlights the fact that drug-maker AbbVie already makes most of its profits outside the United States, about 87% in fact over 2011-2013 by his calculation. For PGL, then, AbbVie is not the best example of an inversion because the horse is already out of the barn in terms of escaped profits.

I see things a little differently on this, but the case is also highly illustrative of a principle we have discussed before, transfer pricing. Let's take a look at AbbVie's Form 10-K Annual Report, downloadable here, to see what I mean.

Pre-tax profits ($millions)    2013    2012    2011    3-year total

U.S.                                  -581      625     626     670
Foreign                             5913    5100    3042     14,055

Total                                 5332    5725    3668     14,725

Source: AbbVie Annual Report, p. 92

I actually calculate the foreign percentage for these three years as 95%, given that AbbVie claims to have lost money in the United States in 2013. In any event, this is a very strange division of the company's profits given where its sales were made.

Net sales ($billions)    2013    2012    2011

U.S.                           10.2     10.4     9.7
Foreign                        8.6       7.9     7.7

Total                          18.8     18.4    17.4

Source: AbbVie Annual Report, p. 40. Totals may not sum due to rounding.

As you can see, in each of the three years, over half of the company's sales were made in United States, but the company reports that only 5% of its profits are in this country. This is pretty funny math, if you like dark humor. Especially since Humira, AbbVie's biggest-selling drug by far, was developed in the United States. So with the patents in the U.S., and most of the sales in the U.S., the profits have to be in the U.S., right?

In reality, of course they are, but not in the Alice's Wonderland world of transfer pricing. In this byzantine world, the patent for Humira is almost certainly owned by a subsidiary in Ireland, where royalty payments are tax-free. How else could the company show a loss in the United States in 2013 when 54% of its sales are here? Despite this, the company reports paying about 39% of its worldwide income taxes ($226 million of $580 million worldwide, see p. 92), although we have seen that what companies report in taxes on their 10-K annual report is largely fiction

So what can we do? The answers remain simple, though as politically difficult as ever. First, require companies to publish what they pay, country-by-country. No more hiding behind consolidated accounts. Second, enact unitary taxation, using apportionment formulas to make transfer pricing irrelevant. Third, end the deferral of U.S. corporate income tax on foreign profits. Finally, despite what "everyone," including the President, says, don't reduce the corporate income tax rate. We've gone long enough with tax policies that exacerbate inequality; there's no reason to continue down that road when we have the world's largest economy.

Oh, and my tiny disagreement with ProGrowthLiberal: It seems to me that if a company is already draining giant chunks of its profits abroad, then allowing an inversion ratifies losing a bigger amount of tax money than it would for a company like Walgreen's that has not moved its profits offshore yet. But I imagine the IRS could still go after AbbVie post-inversion if it wanted to question its pre-inversion transfer prices, so this is a minor point indeed.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unintentional tax humor at Forbes

David Cay Johnston emailed me that there were errors in Forbes contributor Tim Worstall's recent criticisms of the linked article. Indeed there are, but the biggest one (or at least the funniest one) isn't the one Johnston pointed me to.

Worstall writes that AbbVie's pending inversion will not, by itself, reduce the taxes the company owes on its U.S. operations, though it could be a preparatory move to drain profits from the United States. I'll come back to that point, but Worstall then gives the example of how AbbVie might sell its patents to a foreign subsidiary and pay royalties to that unit, thereby draining U.S.-generated profits to a tax haven subsidiary, for instance Bermuda (though Ireland is more germane in the real world for intellectual property). But then comes the zinger:
However, do note something else that has to happen with that tactic. That Bermudan company must pay full market value for those patents when they are transferred. Meaning that the US part of the company would make a large profit of course: thus accelerating their payment of tax to Uncle Sam. This tax dodging stuff is rather harder than it sometimes looks: if you’re going to place IP offshore you can do that, certainly, but you’ve got to do it before it becomes valuable, not afterwards. [link in original]
 "Must pay full market value"? I'm falling off my chair! It's like Worstall doesn't think transfer pricing abuse exists. If patent, copyright, and other intellectual property transfers had to be made at full market value, they would never happen. As I explain in the linked post, academic research has shown that transfer pricing abuses, in this case underpricing the intellectual property transferred from the United States to Bermuda (again, really Ireland), are quite common when no arm's-length market exists for a good. Since companies aren't going to sell their crown jewels to strangers, how can a tax authority know what will be a fair price for a Microsoft patent going from the U.S., where it was derived, to its Irish subsidiary?

Let's be a bit more precise. What would it take for Apple to buy all of Microsoft's patents? In return for whatever lump sum Apple paid, it would need the equivalent back in terms of the present value of all Microsoft's future royalty payments. But if Microsoft sold its patents to its Irish subsidiary at that price, Worstall would be right that there would be no tax benefit. And it's not like it's cost-free to organize such a transaction. Not only would Microsoft incur the costs of drawing up the contract and so forth, but nowadays companies are taking reputational hits as a result of their tax shenanigans: Ask Starbucks, Google, and Amazon. So if the transaction created no true savings, yet hurt a company's reputation, we know that it wouldn't make the transaction. The fact that multinationals are flocking to sell their intellectual property to Irish subsidiaries where the royalties are tax free tells us that the transfer price is not the "full market value" Worstall claims.

Moreover, contra Worstall, it isn't a question of transferring the intellectual property before it's valuable. If you're a multinational drug company, you can make estimates of FDA approval, how much you think a drug will earn, and so forth. And you've got inside information! To take the simplest possible example, let's say AbbVie has two drugs it thinks are each 50% likely to generate revenues with a present value of $500 million each. If you believe Worstall, it will sell one of the patents to its Bermudan subsidiary for only $250 million. But it will sell its other patent for another $250 million, so the supposed cost will still be $500 million and the subsidiary will expect to earn revenues equal to a present value of $500 million off whichever drug turns out to be successful. It's inescapable that there is no point for a multinational company to sell the patent to its subsidiary at a fair price. There would be no tax benefit, and we wouldn't be seeing Microsoft with $76.4 billion offshore or Apple with $54.4 billion offshore in 2013. Or a total of $1.95 trillion for 307 companies. Heck, even AbbVie has $21 billion permanently reinvested offshore, according to its 2013 Annual Report (downloadable here), p. 93. "Full market value," indeed.

Finally, a note on Johnston's and Worstall's main dispute. Worstall argued that an inversion does not reduce the tax that a U.S. subsidiary would owe to the United States, noting that you can drain profits (except, as we saw, he doesn't really believe you can drain profits) from the American subsidiary as long as you have a tax haven subsidiary, i.e., you don't need inversion for that.

From a very narrow point of view, this is correct. But what Worstall overlooks is that, for the U.S., worldwide taxation substitutes for a general anti-avoidance rule making avoidance itself illegal, which is the approach most other industrialized countries take. Inversions make it impossible to police avoidance, so they indeed threaten tax collections from U.S. subsidiaries. But one might argue that deferral has almost completely neutered the benefit from worldwide taxation already. The bottom line is that the United States needs an end to deferrals at least until it adopts strong anti-avoidance rules, at which point it would only then be possible to discuss ending worldwide taxation.

But all of that will be for naught if we allow ourselves to be seduced by silly claims about how transfer prices have to be the same as "full market value."

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Corporate "Inversions" Shift the Tax Burden to Us

Corporate "inversions" are back in the news again, as multinational corporations try every "creative" way they can to get out of paying their fair share of taxes for being located in the United States. With inversions, the idea is to pretend to be a foreign company even though it is physically located and the majority of its shareholders are in the U.S.

"What's that?" you say. At its base, what happens with an inversion is that a U.S. corporation claims that its head office is really in Ireland, the Cayman Islands, Jersey, etc. Originally, all you had to do was say that your headquarters was abroad. Literally.

Now, the rules require you to have at least 20% foreign ownership to make this claim, but companies as diverse as Pfizer, AbbVie, and Walgreen's are set to run rings around this low hurdle. The basic idea is that you take over a smaller foreign company and pay for it partly with your own company's stock to give the shareholders of the foreign takeover target at least a 20% ownership stake in your company.

Thus, with pharmaceutical company AbbVie's takeover of the Irish company Shire (legally incorporated in the even worse tax haven Jersey), Shire's shareholders will own about 25% of the new company, thereby qualifying to take advantage of the inversion rules. It expects that its effective tax rate will decline from 22.6% in 2013 to 13% in 2016. Yet nothing will actually change in the new company: it will still be headquartered in Chicago, and the overwhelming majority of shareholders will be American.

As David Cay Johnston points out, even some staunch business advocates like Fortune magazine are calling this tax dodge "positively un-American." Further, as he notes, Walgreen's wants to still benefit from filling Medicare and Medicaid prescriptions even if it ceases to pay much in U.S. corporate income tax. In other words, it will get all the benefits of being in the U.S., including lucrative government contracts, without paying for the costs of government.

As I told The Fiscal Times, if companies like these get their tax burden reduced, there are only three possible reactions that can occur: someone else (i.e., you and me) will pay more taxes; the government must run a higher deficit; or government programs must be cut. Of course, there is a limitless number of combinations of these three changes that can result, but one or more of them has to happen.

What can we do about this? One obvious answer to to raise the bar for foreign ownership to at least 50%+ to call a company foreign. Even more comprehensive, as reported by Citizens for Tax Justice, would be to continue to consider a company "American" for tax purposes as long as it had "substantial operations" in the United States and was managed from the United States. Furthermore, the Obama Administration has proposed limiting the amount of deductions American companies can take for interest paid on loans "from" their foreign subsidiaries, thereby preventing what is often called "profit stripping." Another idea, from Senator Bernie Sanders, would be to bar such companies from government contracts.

The whole concept of "inversions" no doubt sounds very arcane to the average person. But one of the bills to rein them in is estimated to raise $20 billion in tax revenue over the next 10 years. The stakes are substantial, so we need to take a minute to wrap our head around it if we want to head off yet another way in which the tax burden is shifted to the middle class.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Piketty on the minimum wage

A lot going on with the minimum wage lately, but I will contextualize it first with Thomas Piketty's analysis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 308-313. I'll have more to say about other parts of the book later, but for now it's important to remember that one of the keys to the book's success is that it is built on a gigantic trove of long-term data. His French wealth data, for example, goes all the way back to the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution! (Speaking of which, it's Bastille Day as I write this.)

Piketty writes in this section about increasing labor income inequality in the United States and the importance of labor market institutions in affecting wages in the medium term even as education (though see Jeff Faux's dissent in The Servant Economy) and technology are the keys to the long-run wage possibilities. He counterposes the steady increase in the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) value of the French minimum wage since 1950 to the decline of the real U.S. minimum wage since it peaked in 1969 at $10.10 in 2013 dollars. At $7.25 today, it is a full 28% below its peak, and 1/3 less than the current French minimum wage at purchasing power parity in 2013 (see, search "data by theme" and select "labour," then "earnings," then "real minimum wages," and set the series to "US$PPP" and the pay period to "hourly.")

This decline of the real value of the minimum wage is why Piketty argues that an increase in the U.S. would make sense, much more so than in France. At this low level, there is much less danger of a negative impact on the number of jobs. His key insight is that if wages are too low, that itself causes economic inefficiencies and can even create inefficiencies for the firm. In particular, if wages are too low, it can cause workers to acquire fewer firm-specific skills than would be optimal for the employer. This would seem to hold economy-wide as well: if the general wage level is too low, workers have less incentive to acquire skills that would make them and the economy as a whole more productive. Additionally, Piketty argues that employers' superior bargaining position and the absence of "pure and perfect" competition in labor markets justifies the limits on companies' power embodied in the minimum wage.

The minimum wage has also been in the news this month. The biggest story is that for the first time Germany has adopted a minimum wage effective in 2015, set at €8.50 ($11.60) an hour. This was the price Angela Merkel had to pay to bring the Social Democratic Party into her governing coalition. In addition, the minimum wage in the future will be set by a national commission made up of labor and business representatives.

Finally, a new study by the Center for Economic Policy Research finds that the 13 states that raised their minimum wage on January 1 had higher rates of job growth (0.99% vs. 0.68%) through May 31 than the 37 states that did not raise their minimum wage. While the study does not claim to be definitive, it is one further piece of evidence that the minimum wage is not a job killer at the levels seen currently in the United States.

Cross-posted with Angry Bear.