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 from Middle Class Political Economist.

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