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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.