Targeting Overseas Tax SheltersThe Daily
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- 7 Apr 2021
The I.R.S. says that Bristol Myers Squibb, America’s second-largest drug company, has engaged a tax-shelter setup that has deprived the United States of $1.4 billion in tax revenue.The Biden administration is looking to put an end to such practices to pay for its policy ambitions, including infrastructure like improving roads and bridges and revitalizing cities.We look at the structure of these tax arrangements and explore how, and whether, it’s possible to clamp down on them. Guest: Jesse Drucker, an investigative reporter on the Business desk for The New York Times.Sign up here to get The Daily in your inbox each morning. And for an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Background reading: The I.R.S. says that Bristol Myers Squibb used an “abusive” offshore setup to avoid $1.4 billion in federal taxes.In a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made the case for a global minimum corporate tax rate, kicking off the Biden administration’s effort to help raise revenue in the United States. For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today to pay for its sweeping infrastructure plan, the Biden administration wants to crack down on large and profitable American companies that have used tax shelters to avoid paying billions of dollars to the government.
My colleague, investigative reporter Jesse Drucker, on how one American company did just that.
It's Wednesday, April seven. Jesse, how did you find this story? So I was talking to a guy not too long ago and he says, look, the IRS is in a big dispute with a big multinational company and there is a document laying this out to some degree that's floating around out there. And you should try to get a hold of it. That's a very tantalizing tip. Yeah.
So I put up some calls. Amazingly, the first person I speak to says, yeah, I know what you're talking about. I said, well, can you get me a copy? This is like I could get you a copy of this. So he sends me a copy of this document.
It's 20 pages long. It's an IRS memo laying out in a fair amount of detail a dispute with a big company.
But it's very heavily redacted, enormous portions of the document or whited out, including the name of the company, the amount of money in dispute, some of the offshore entities that the company was using. So I asked the person, what do I do, how am I going to get around this? Right. He said, take the PDF document, copy and paste it into a word document and highlight it. And so I did that and magically all of the redactions disappear.
Wow, so your high tech investigative solution to this problem, extremely high tech, was control, C, control, V, cut and paste. Absolutely.
And just once this document is no longer redacted, what is the story that it starts to tell you?
So the document revealed that the company was Bristol-Myers Squibb and it revealed that the IRS was alleging that Bristol-Myers used an offshore tax scheme that it alleged was violating an anti abuse provision in the tax code.
Bristol-Myers is the second biggest drug company in the US. They make all sorts of drugs from anti HIV treatments to Eliquis, a very popular blood thinner. And years ago, like many multinationals, had set up an elaborate structure offshore in Ireland as a way to cut its taxes.
And just why Ireland? So Ireland has been a very popular destination for years, particularly for tech companies like Google and Apple pharma companies like Merck, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, because Ireland makes it easy for you to move profits through their country into places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, where it gets taxed either not at all, or at very, very low rates like single digit rates.
Think of Ireland is like a very user friendly gateway into the Caribbean and the rest of the tax haven world.
I'm sure that's how the people of Ireland want you to see it.
I think it's how a lot of the tax accountants of Ireland want you to see it.
OK, so Bristol-Myers sets up this Irish operation to get a better deal on taxes than one. So in 2012, Bristol-Myers realizes that it has a problem and also potentially an opportunity. It's got a bunch of tax deductions that it can use in Ireland, but it's run out of tax deductions in the US.
And just for the uninitiated, when you say tax deduction, you mean a technical excuse to pay less taxes?
Yeah, just a write off. Like, you know, you give money to your favorite charity. You get to deduct that from your taxable income. Got it. So what had happened is they were sort of had run into a mismatch, which is they had all these profits from some drugs in the US and at that time, the US corporate income tax rate was thirty five percent. And they had all these deductions in Ireland. So what they did was they set up an offshore partnership where they essentially exported the deductions from Ireland into the US to shelter their profits in the US.
Huh. Can you do that? Well, the IRS says you can't. The IRS says that this violated an anti abuse provision of the tax code, the anti abuse provision of 700 foresi of the tax code. I'm sure one of your favorite provisions course that'll happens in 2012. And there's a lot of interesting things about that timing. I wrote a story in 2006 about Merck and Merck had done a transaction just like this and G.E. did a transaction like this and Dow Chemical did a transaction like this, and the IRS was attacking those transactions in court and winning.
Huh? And so one of the most interesting things about this transaction involving Bristol-Myers Squibb is there they are watching the IRS attacking these transactions. Courts are siding with the government and Bristol-Myers does its tax shelter anyway. So this deduction importation scheme is something Bristol-Myers and its lawyers definitely would have understood was risky and quite likely illegal. Yeah, absolutely risky.
I can assure you. Their lawyers were very aware of what was going on with G.E. and Dow Chemical and Merck. You know, with the Merck transaction, it was set up in part by this kind of legendary tax lawyer who actually wrote in a trade publication. He kind of laid out how to do this scheme. And he opens his article with a quote from Al Capone where he says, A good lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than 10 men with machine guns.
Wow. So this was a very kind of widely known transaction. And it was widely known by twenty twelve at least, certainly that the government didn't like it and that the government was successful in challenging it. But Bristol-Myers decided to risk it anyway. Right. And for how long do they undertake this before the IRS notices?
So we don't exactly know the answer to that. The IRS memo is dated April twenty twenty, so that's about seven and a half years after Bristol-Myers.
But we don't know exactly when the IRS got wind of it.
And just for the years that Bristol-Myers Squibb undertook this, despite the legal risks, how much money did they save and I guess deprive the US taxpayer of the IRS?
Analysis has an estimate that over the entire life of the transaction that they expected Bristol-Myers would avoid about one point four billion dollars in federal income taxes.
That's a tremendous amount of money to not pay the Treasury.
Yeah, that's real money. I mean, by the standards of disputes that the IRS gets into with big multinational companies, that is an enormous dispute. I should say that it's a dispute that's ongoing. We know the IRS has challenged Bristol-Myers over this, but we don't know where the case stands at the moment.
So when we think about the Biden administration's plans to pay for something like the infrastructure bill by making big corporations pay what they really owe and corporate taxes, this is basically exhibit A. It sounds like this is exactly what the White House is talking about.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the kind of days of companies using these kind of convoluted offshore strategies to get out of paying U.S. income taxes is one of the things they want to try to end.
And based on your reporting, how many versions of this kind of scheme are out there and how much money might the US be getting cheated out of? Well, there's kind of endless permutations of schemes like these, I mean, a few years ago, there were estimates that the U.S. was losing in excess of one hundred billion dollars a year from multinational companies pushing their profits offshore. So you can very easily see how over the course of a decade that adds up to a trillion dollars or more.
Right. So this is a pretty wide spread problem. The Biden people aren't exaggerating when they describe this as a tremendous missed opportunity for revenue.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, for years, you know, you had companies like Google paying taxes at a rate of two or three percent on the majority of their profits around the world. I mean, they're doing their sales in places like the U.S. and France and Germany and Japan, but their taxable income ends up in Bermuda, right. Same for Apple. Same for Hewlett-Packard. Same for Pfizer. Same for Amazon. Facebook. I mean, take your pick.
They're all doing some version of it.
And according to President Biden, if those companies were to pay what they really owe, then he could rebuild roads and bridges and cities and pay for an infrastructure bill. Yeah, that's the theory. You know, it reminds me of the old story with Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, where they asked him, why do you rob banks? And he said that's where the money is at.
I mean, not to compare the US government to a bank robber, obviously, but U.S. multinationals have been stealing trillions of dollars overseas for decades. And that by the administration is basically saying, look, if we can tax that money, we can pay for a lot of stuff. Right. To quote Willie Sutton, that's where the money is. That's where the money is. We'll be right back. A refreshing shower and an insightful news podcast, now you can combine two essential everyday rituals with the color Moxey showerhead plus beaker with Sound by Harman Kardon.
It's the perfect way to start your day. Invigorated and informed. Remix your routine with the Moxey Showerhead only from Colar Visit Colar Dotcom Slash Moxey and use promo code daily at checkout for special pricing. Secretary Yellen, thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to hearing your remarks. Thank you to the council for this invitation.
Jesse, how does the Biden administration envision making companies like Bristol-Myers pay their fair share of corporate taxes?
President Biden's proposals call for bold domestic action.
On Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen gave a speech.
We are working with G20 nations to agree to a global minimum corporate tax rate.
And she articulated the administration's support for a global minimum tax for companies overseas.
Competitiveness is about more than how US headquartered companies fare against other companies. It's about making sure the governments have stable tax systems and that all citizens fairly share the burden of financing government.
In other words, if you are a big multinational and you're going to push your profits into Bermuda or the Cayman Islands where your tax rate is zero, you are now going to pay taxes at a minimum rate of twenty one percent on those profits.
Together, we can use a global minimum tax to make sure that the global economy thrives based on a more level playing field in the taxation of multinational corporations.
The day of zero tax profits would be gone. And explain how a minimum corporate tax would work. Technically, yes, so like let's take the example of Bristol Myers so we don't know exactly how much Bristol Myers has been paying on the profits. They've been pushing into Switzerland and Ireland, say. But let's imagine that's 10 percent. What the Biden administration is saying is, look, OK, you've paid 10 percent overseas, but we want twenty one percent.
So you're going to have to pay us the spread between the 10 you've already paid and the twenty one that we want. So in that case, you'd be paying an additional 11 percent.
So the US Treasury is demanding the difference between the very low rate that a company like Bristol-Myers might be paying in a place like Ireland and the tax rate back in the US.
Right, exactly. I mean, you know, the theory is if you had a system like that, then the Bristol-Myers of the world wouldn't do transactions like these because they wouldn't be saving any money or these they wouldn't be saving enough money that it's worth doing them.
Got it. So the US isn't going to be collecting every single dollar of corporate taxes that perhaps it wishes. But in collecting the difference, it's sending a very clear message to these companies is just not going to be worth your time to transfer profits and patents overseas, right?
Exactly. So, Jesse, how is it that such a tax does not currently exist if these tax avoidance schemes have been going on for so long and with so many companies?
Well, so overseas, tax regulators have been trying to do some version of this for about eight years. I mean, basically beginning in 2013, tax regulators in France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, you name it, announced big efforts to crack down on these schemes. And basically what was happening was, you know, the U.K. was tired of Starbucks coming into London, opening up coffee shops all over the city and not paying them any income taxes.
And the same process was being replicated all around the world. And the biggest offenders were U.S. companies.
That's interesting. Yeah, that process of trying to crack down on these schemes was not opposed by. But I would say the Obama administration really kind of dragged its feet for four years on taking part in that in a full throated way and did actually say that it was opposed to some of the things that were being proposed.
Why why would the Obama administration oppose foreign governments getting their fair share of corporate taxes when the US itself knows how important it is to get its fair share of corporate taxes? Because it was viewed as basically an attack on our companies like it was Google and Starbucks and Amazon, it was big U.S. companies depriving these foreign markets of tax revenue. And the US position was, if you're going to make our US multinationals pay higher taxes, that's going to put our companies at a competitive disadvantage.
And we don't like that.
So these big global proposals didn't really get very far under Obama. Yeah, for the most part, they did not get very far. Now, interestingly, what we did have during the Trump administration in twenty seventeen as part of the Republican overhaul of the tax code. Although that overhaul was driven by enormous tax cuts and tax breaks for multinationals, it did include the kernel of a minimum tax overseas for companies at a much lower rate than what Biden is proposing at a rate of ten and a half percent.
And with a lot of caveats and carve outs.
But it sounds like this Trump tax law does acquaint the U.S. and its corporations with the concept of a corporate minimum tax. Yes.
And what the Biden administration folks are doing is they're building on that and they're doubling it to twenty one percent.
So how are American corporations reacting to this proposal to double the corporate minimum tax from that 10 and a half percent to 21 percent negatively?
You know, the Business Roundtable, which is a big business lobbying group, has already come out and said, we don't like this. We already pay a global minimum tax. We're not interested in having a new one and having a new one. That's twice as much as what we already pay.
Right. Which seems somewhat predictable. And I guess the question is, will they use their lobbyists and their influence in Washington to try to prevent this tax from coming into being and therefore try to kneecap the mechanism by which President Biden pays for an infrastructure bill?
Yeah, I mean, look, no one can predict the future, but obviously you have to assume there's going to be a lot of opposition to this. And I think the assumption is like this is sort of the opening salvo, right. That if they are successful at raising the corporate tax rate, if they are successful at creating a true minimum overseas tax rate, that it's going to be at some level. That's not quite what they're proposing, but it's going to be some compromise.
So it may not be twenty one percent. It may land somewhere between twenty one percent and 10 and a half percent. Right, exactly.
Got it. So, Jesse, based on your reporting, what are the chances that this corporate minimum tax actually happens?
You know, look, there's a reason that the US has not gone after these arrangements in the past in a full throated way. And it's because these are very powerful interests or many think, the power of the entire U.S. tech industry, the entire U.S. pharma industry, every major multinational company has some version of a tax arrangement like this and stands to see their taxes go up. You can see it's very obvious why they would be quite a bit of opposition to this.
And remember, the kind of minimum tax lite that we saw in the Trump administration was in the context of overall enormous tax cuts for corporations. This is like only stick and no carrot. Just given those power dynamics. You just laid out the power of all these companies to prevent anyone from holding them accountable for these tax schemes. I'm curious what your reaction has been to this new White House proposing such a sweeping solution to tax avoidance? That's a great question.
I mean, you know, for me, it's pretty extraordinary, right? I mean, like I've been writing about offshore tax dodging by big multinationals for the better part of the last 15 years and.
You know, anyone that you talk to about these schemes, like Google, attributes billions of dollars of profits to a mailbox in Bermuda and pays taxes at a rate of two percent overseas, anyone you talk to about this stuff says this is totally preposterous. This is outrageous. How can this be? And it be, you know, nothing happens, nothing changes. So to see proposals that are squarely aimed at all this stuff, you know, you really wonder, does this mean that the era of big multinationals dodging taxes, pushing all their profits offshore might finally be coming to an end?
Thank you, Jesse. Thank you, Michael. We'll be right back. Atlassian, the makers behind popular teamwork software like Jira, Trello and Confluence, whether it's real time collaboration or staying aligned on key goals, Atlassian is agile work management solutions and power dev business and I.T. teams across the whole enterprise to work more efficiently together. It's exactly why 83 percent of the Fortune 500 trust Atlassian every day to stay agile and move work forward. See what Atlassian can do for your teams at Atlassian Dotcom.
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