Tastes Like Tax Avoidance: U.S. Company’s Blend With Dannon Parent

Isaiah J. Poole

The corporation that is best known for blending yogurt is about to be known as the base for a not-so-delicious corporate tax-avoidance scheme.

The New York Times is among the outlets reporting today that an Illinois drug maker that you likely haven’t heard of, Hospira, is in talks to purchase a division of a company that might be more familiar to you – Danone, the French corporation that is the home of Dannon Yogurt.

It is the latest example of a corporation rushing to execute an “inversion,” in which an American corporation merges with a company in a low-tax country, but retains up to 80 percent ownership and control. That enables the corporation to adopt the home country of the company it merged with for tax purposes, but remain American in every other respect.

In this case, Hospira would be acquiring Danone’s medical nutrition business in the Netherlands, a favorite corporate tax sanctuary. The Times says that the proposed deal “could be considered a ‘spinversion,’ in which a foreign company spins off a unit to an American buyer, allowing it to undertake an inversion.”

The often-cited excuse for these deals is that corporate tax rates in the United States, at 35 percent, are too high and thus makes U.S. firms uncompetitive in the global economy. But that is not the case with Hospira, according to its own 2013 financial results press release. Like most American corporations, Hospira’s corporate tax rate was nowhere near 35 percent: “The full-year 2013 effective tax rate on an adjusted basis was 15.0 percent compared to 18.3 percent in 2012,” the company reported in February.

Hospira is also not shy about aggressively cutting its state taxes. In 2012 it obtained $13 million in tax incentives from North Carolina over 10 years in exchange for expanding and refurbishing its Rocky Mount, N.C. plant. The expansion would yield an additional 200 jobs – a tax giveaway equal to about $65,000 per new job created. Particularly telling is this sentence from a trade publication story about the deal: “The North Carolina governor’s office says Hospira’s investment there could reach $270 million over the next decade, but Adams makes clear that the company has made no promises beyond the $85 million.”

The Hospira deal underscores the need for federal action to end this gamesmanship, and to move toward tax reforms that require American corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. This week, a former Obama administration top Treasury Department official suggested that the president address the problem through an executive order if he could not get Congress to act. “When a material portion of the U.S. corporate tax base is at risk, doing nothing borders on the irresponsible,” Mr. Shay wrote in the newsletter Tax Notes Today, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, the onus should really be on our representatives in Congress to tell these corporations that they can’t profit from America and at the same time renounce their American citizenship so they can evade paying their fair share of taxes.

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