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Giving up its U.S. citizenship could save Pfizer $35 billion in taxes

Pfizer, the maker of antidepressant drug Zoloft, is planning to merge with Allergan and move its headquarters to Ireland, potentially lowering its tax bill by $35 billion.  Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg News.
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When Pfizer announced its plan last year to merge with Botox-maker Allergan and move its headquarters to Ireland the company said the deal would lower its tax rate to about 17 percent to 18 percent, saving it about $2 billion over three years.

But in a report published Thursday, Americans for Tax Fairness say the New York-based pharma giant will actually save much more by giving up its U.S. citizenship: $35 billion.

Pfizer is merging with the smaller Dublin-based Allergan in what is known as an “inversion,” in which U.S. companies are bought by or merge with foreign firms in order to reduce U.S. corporate tax burdens. The Pfizer-Allergan deal is the largest inversion ever and has raised angst among lawmakers.

In addition to lowering its effective tax rate from about 25 percent, Americans for Tax Fairness notes that Pfizer will gain access to $148 billion in profits it earned overseas and currently can’t bring back to the United States without taking a tax hit. Bringing the cash would have cost the firm $35 billion, according to the left-leaning advocacy group.

Pfizer's $160 billion marriage with Allergan will give it fast growing drugs like Botox and a much lower tax rate. (Video: Reuters)

“We believe the Treasury Department can challenge the theft of taxpayer dollars that Pfizer is counting on under this deal,” said Frank Clemente, executive director of the group.

Pfizer said in a statement that the merger “will create a global, R&D-focused company with the ability to  lead in the quest to find cures and treatments for patients with the most feared diseases and conditions of our time, such as Alzheimer’s disease Parkinson’s disease, cancer and rare genetic disorders.  This transaction is not structured to move jobs out of the United States, where we conduct the majority of our research.”

Lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated by the flood of U.S. companies moving overseas to lower their tax rate. Pfizer’s announcement was followed by one from Johnson Controls, which said last month that it would merge with Tyco and move its headquarters to Cork, Ireland. Johnson Controls said the strategy would save the new company—with a market cap of about $36 billion— about $150 million a year in taxes.

Earlier this week, two Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation meant to attack one of the chief benefits of inversions, a practice known as “earnings stripping.” In addition to lowering their tax rate, a company involved in an inversion can often offset taxes with the interest from debt payments made by its U.S. operations to its foreign parent company.

The legislation by Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, would make that maneuver more difficult and less profitable.

Earnings stripping “enables them to significantly lower the amount of taxes they pay in the U.S, while taking advantage of our country’s resources and strong workforce,” said Levin.

The Treasury Department, which has said it reviewing the issue of earnings stripping, “appreciates” the lawmakers leadership on the issue, an agency spokesman said. “The administration will continue to explore ways to address inversions — including potential guidance on earnings stripping — but the only way to fully solve this problem is for Congress to enact legislation that specifically addresses inversions,” he said.

When, or if, Congress will take up the issue is unclear. Most lawmakers agree the country’s 35 percent corporate tax rate, the highest in the developed world, should be lowered. But Democrats and Republicans remain split on whether to take up the issue piecemeal or through wholesale reform and there appears to be little political appetite for addressing such a complex issue during a presidential election year.

Some lawmakers say it is Treasury that can do more. “Prior Treasury guidance has not been successful in slowing inversions and no meaningful legislative response seems probable this year from Congress. We simply cannot wait, and your action can put a stop to this trend until a new Congress can act,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) and eight other lawmakers said in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew Thursday.