Alex Parker reports on a proposal from Representative Darin LaHood:
As part of the next round of pandemic relief, House Republicans are pushing new incentives for companies to bring home offshore intellectual property — something that they contend could boost job growth but that critics see as another corporate giveaway … While the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act overhauled the federal tax code and eliminated many of the incentives for offshore income-shifting, it left the structures themselves intact, and companies have been reluctant to undo them as the law remains young.
I think we admitted these 2017 tax cuts for the rich were complex so permit me to slightly disagree with Mr. Parker’s excellent reporting. If the intellectual property (IP) were left offshore, the GILTI income would face a tax rate of only 10.5% whereas onshore IP would face that FDII rate of 13.125%. Why bring the IP back home and face a higher rate? But I interrupted Mr. Parker who basically notes all these nuances:
Current law gives companies plenty of reasons to onshore the intellectual property they spent decades pushing offshore in licensing and cost-sharing agreements. Income from intangible assets held domestically may qualify for a reduced 13.125% tax rate as foreign-derived intangible income. The same income, held offshore, may fall under the global intangible low-taxed income regime, which is meant to penalize companies for holding intangibles abroad. Those carrot-and-stick provisions ultimately ensure neutrality in decisions about where to locate IP, the TCJA’s authors said when it was passed. The TCJA also included a deemed repatriation that allowed companies to bring home offshore income after it had paid a one-time transition tax. But the intangible assets that generated that income were not brought home with it, and they must be repatriated under the normal tax rules. And companies still face a potential tax charge when bringing a valuable asset home. Upon repatriation, if the property has gained value offshore, the company’s taxable income will increase based on that gain for that year, depending on how it classifies the transaction. Even though it’s a one-time payment, it could be enough to discourage the transaction.
Brad Setser has more to say about how the lack of enforcement with respect to transfer pricing in the Big Pharma sector has not only cost us Federal tax revenues but perhaps in American jobs in his “The Irish Shock to U.S. Manufacturing?” (May 25, 2020):
America’s production of pharmaceuticals and medicines peaked in 2006, back before the global financial crisis. Output now is about 20 percent below its 2006 level. Pharmaceuticals tend to be capital not labor intensive. High quality pharmaceuticals aren’t made in sweat shops. Pharmaceuticals certainly weren’t the kind of industry that most economists expected to be on the losing end of trade liberalization twenty years ago. Yet America’s consumption of pharmaceuticals didn’t peak in 2006. Only U.S. output. Imports have increased substantially since 2006. Imports of pharmaceuticals have increased from $65 billion in 2006 to $151 billion in 2019. As a result, the trade deficit in pharmaceuticals has increased from $32 billion at the end of 2006 to $93 billion in March of this year. That is about 0.4 percent of US GDP, or just under 10 percent of the total trade deficit in manufactures. The bulk of these imports are from countries that pay high wages. The two biggest sources of imports are Ireland and Switzerland. Many of the usual arguments around the gains to consumers from trade don’t really apply here. The imports are of patent protected goods, so they don’t expand consumer choice. And U.S. pharmaceutical prices are notoriously high—imports from Ireland and Switzerland haven’t brought U.S. pharmaceutical prices down to European levels. The bulk of the gains from trade here almost certainly go to the owners of the pharmaceutical companies who benefit from lower taxes. And the main loser is the U.S. Treasury. Right now, the United States pays the highest prices in the world for its medicines (many of which derive from NIH research) while U.S. pharmaceutical companies are often taxed at quite low effective rates.
I want to do two things here starting with an explanation of the Irish transfer pricing game and later a small complaint about his Swiss tale. He cites a story about an Irish affiliate of Pfizer by Tom Bergin and Kevin Drawbaugh:
I often hear that pharmaceuticals are one of America’s biggest exports. But that isn’t what is in the actual trade data (see exhibits 7 & 8). American firms (or formerly American firms, if there has been an inversion) may own the intellectual property behind many successful drugs, but the active ingredients themselves are often manufactured abroad. In fact, the (goods) trade deficit in pharmaceuticals now exceeds the surplus in civil aircraft. This trade isn’t obviously driven by differences in labor costs. The biggest sources of pharmaceutical imports, Ireland and Switzerland, aren’t exactly low wage countries. Trade here seems motivated in large part by the ability to use transfer pricing to shift profits to low tax jurisdictions. And the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act if anything looks to have made those games more not less attractive. The incentive to offshore intellectual property generally remains—the “GILTI” rate on profits shifted to no tax jurisdictions is the lowest rate in the tax code. And the lower tax on intangibles than on tangibles has created an incentive to offshore actual production and jobs as well—the more tangible assets abroad, the higher your deemed tangible income and the lower your tax on your intangible income (the same is true for firms that retain their intellectual property in the United States, as there is a lower tax rate on the export of intangibles than the export of tangibles). To be concrete, a firm with its intellectual property in the Caribbean believes it can reduce its effective tax rate to under 10 percent (a rate somewhat below the global “minimum”). It is too early to say definitively that these incentives drove the increase in the pharmaceutical deficit in 2018. But it doesn’t seem too early to say that there is no evidence that these kind of tax games have gone away after the tax reform.
Brad’s thesis is certainly going to be controversial. As I read what he is saying is that it is not just the GILTI provisions of the 2017 tax cut that led to the increase in the life science trade deficit over the years. Rather it was the weak enforcement of basic transfer pricing rules that allowed Big Pharma to massively evade U.S. corporate taxes and created these perverse incentives. While we were told that the 2017 Republican tax cut for the rich would close the transfer pricing loopholes and perverse incentives they clearly did not. I’m all for scrapping GILTI and FDII for a lot of reasons but these steps alone will not fundamentally change what Brad is suggesting unless we start actually enforcing good old fashion transfer pricing rules. Let’s hope Biden has this in mind.
Alex Parker covers an interesting and important tax policy issue:
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent proposal to secure medical supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic includes tweaks to the 2017 federal tax overhaul, reigniting the debate about whether its international provisions are pushing manufacturing facilities offshore . . . the TCJA exempted most foreign income from taxation as part of a shift toward a more territorial tax system, similar to those used in Europe and much of the world. But it also enacted new provisions, including the GILTI tax and the base erosion and anti-abuse tax, which lawmakers said would block companies from shifting U.S. income abroad.
Many of the structures for tax avoidance that have drawn public scrutiny and outrage over the past decade have involved intangibles, which are relatively easy to move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to chase the lowest tax rate. But the very attribute that makes them difficult to tax also makes them difficult to define. Rather than attempt to pinpoint the intangibles themselves, the TCJA instead targets unusually high returns on tangible assets.
Under the GILTI provision, the total foreign income of a U.S. company, beyond a 10% return on its offshore depreciable tangible assets, is taxed at 10.5%. That rate is half of the overall corporate rate of 21%.
As the bill was passed by Congress in 2017, Democrats and outside critics quickly noted that the GILTI tax could encourage companies to shift investments in tangible assets abroad. Because the GILTI tax kicks in only at a 10% return on foreign tangible property, the more valuable that property is, the smaller the ultimate GILTI tax bill will be.
Even further, because GILTI is calculated at the global level, in most cases it would not matter where new tangible assets were located; as long as they were offshore, they would decrease the GILTI tax. A reduced rate on foreign-derived intangible income, or domestic income defined through a formula similar to GILTI, also creates a similar incentive, critics contend. If a company has tangible assets at home, it will have less income defined as FDII, and less of the tax benefit.
The 2017 tax cut for rich people was written in secret by Republicans who had told us that it would somehow stop transfer pricing manipulation and would encourage onshoring. But when the details were released, a lot of economists including conservative economics were taken back by the complexity of the international provisions.
Favoring Hi-Tech Tax Cheats Over Consumers of French Wine
Hoping to buy a nice bottle of French wine? Doug Palmer of Poltico has some bad news for you:
The Trump administration announced Friday a 25 percent tariff on $1.3 billion worth of French handbags, cosmetics and soaps in retaliation for a digital services tax on U.S. internet giants, but said it would suspend imposing them for up to six months. The United States believes the way the French tax is structured unfairly targets large U.S. internet companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. However, other countries are increasingly determined to find a way to collect revenue from firms that earn billions of dollars in their markets.
Let’s note that Amazon, Facebook, and Google made yuuuuge profits and evade U.S. corporate profits taxes. So paying a modest excise tax on European sales is not exactly going to bankrupt these tax cheats. But back to the story:
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s office concluded last year that France’s digital service tax was unreasonable, discriminatory and a burden on U.S. commerce. It also laid out a list of $2.4 billion worth of French goods — including Champagne, cheeses, handbags, soaps and fine dinnerware — that could be hit with retaliatory duties as high as 100 percent. U.S. trade officials said the final retaliation figure announced Friday reflects the value of U.S. digital transactions covered by France’s 3 percent digital services tax, which is estimated to be in the range of $15 billion per year, and the amount of taxes that France is expected to collect from U.S. companies.
If collecting tax revenues were the goal, the U.S. could make much more from Amazon, Facebook, and Google by simply enforcing the transfer pricing rules. Oh but that would be taxing rich people which is not the Republican way. Back to the story:
I took up this invitation from Dan Shaviro:
tomorrow morning I’ll be participating in a very interesting international tax policy conference with a number of outstanding participants. It’s on Zoom … I’m actually the second speaker on Panel II (although we’re listed above alphabetically), so I will be speaking from roughly 11:08 to 11:15. I’m planning to discuss the OECD’s Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 initiatives, although what exactly I’ll say remains somewhat flexible pending the keynote address, which may offer updates (at least to me) that are of interest
He gives the entire agenda, which can also be found here. This blog post focuses on Panel I, which noted the difficulties of measuring the extent of income shifting to tax havens as we have the papers that formed the basis of the presentations by Kimberly Clausing and Leslie Robinson. Before I proceed an appeal to anyone who has a transcript of what Dan Shaviro and Victoria Perry (IMF) said as both had intriguing remarks on the enforcement of transfer pricing, which I want to include in a follow-up post. Clausing noted:
This research note describes the plausible magnitude of US revenue loss due to profit shifting, building on recent developments in the literature as well as new country-by-country data on US multinational companies in 2017. In the past, the most complete data sources have all shown large magnitudes of profit shifting, suggesting substantial revenue losses in non-haven countries. Blouin and Robinson (2019) have challenged this consensus, noting that many data sources may be flawed due to the inadvertent inclusion of double-counted profits or through an inadvertent misallocation of profit. Nonetheless, their proposed adjustment to the data generates its own puzzles, and experts at both the BEA and the JCT believe that the proposed adjustment will omit some types of profit shifting. Beyond that, Blouin and Robinson’s conclusions regarding how their adjustments affect the scale of profit shifting set aside many nuances in method that affect bottom-line findings about the scale of profit shifting. This research note uses recently released country-by-country tax data to estimate plausible benchmarks regarding the scale of profit shifting, finding that profit shifting is likely to be costing the US government over $100 billion a year in 2017 (at 2017 tax rates). While much can be done to refine these estimates and learn more about the scale of the problem, the problem remains unambiguously very large.
The FDA has approved Remdesivir for emergency use and Gilead Science will denote its current 1.5 million vials, which could potentially treat 300 thousand patients as it takes 5 to 10 treatments per patient. The WHO wants more Remdesivir:
The World Health Organization said Monday that it will speak with the U.S. government and Gilead Sciences on how antiviral drug remdesivir could be made more widely available to treat Covid-19 as data of its effectiveness emerges.
At some point we will need to consider pricing. This report considers two approaches with the first being to price at the economic cost of production:
For remdesivir, we used evidence on the cost of producing the next course of therapy from an article by Hill et all in the Journal of Virus Eradication (2020). Their methods sought to determine the “minimum” costs of production by calculating the cost of active pharmaceutical ingredients, which is combined with costs of excipients, formulation, packaging and a small profit margin. Their analysis calculated a total cost of producing the “final finished product” of $9.32 US for a 10-day course of treatment. We rounded that amount up to $10 for a 10-day course. If a 5-day course of treatment becomes a recommended course of therapy, then the marginal cost would accordingly shrink to $5
. In other words, $1 per vial. The report also estimates a value based price known as Cost-Effectiveness Analysis:
In this preliminary modeling exercise, remdesivir extends life and improves quality of life versus standard of care. In public health emergencies, cost-effectiveness analysis thresholds are often scaled downward, and we feel the pricing estimate related to the threshold of $50,000 per incremental quality adjusted life year (and equal value of a life-year gained) is the most policy-relevant consideration. In the case of remdesivir, the initial ICER-COVID model suggests a price of approximately $4,500 per treatment course, whether that course is 10 or 5 days
In other words each patient would generate $4500 for the course of the treatments. Even if we assume 10 vials per patient, that comes to a price equal to $450 per vial. Someone call Dean Baker as he might want to write another one of his classic condemnations of the patent system. While I agree with the WHO on their call for an all hands on deck on getting this treatment produced and given to the patients who would benefit the most of this treatment, the policy debate over pricing should begin immediately.
Corporate Bond Spreads and the Pandemic
The St. Louis FED has an economics blog:
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption in economic activity across the globe. Financial markets, in particular, have experienced surges in volatility that had not been seen since the 2007-09 financial crisis … The figure below plots the median value for our measure of credit spreads (the difference between a corporate bond’s yield and a benchmark interest rate on U.S. government securities) at the daily frequency, since the beginning of the year … The figure highlights two important dates. The first one is Feb. 28, when stock markets experienced the largest single week declines since the 2008 financial crisis. While the median spread had been stable at around 100 basis points since the beginning of the year, it started rising around this date, as financial market turmoil became more evident. The second line corresponds to March 23, the day when the Fed announced a series of new measures to support the economy.
Why was the PREDICT Program Suspended Last Fall?
A discussion from October 29, 2019:
A crucial federal program tracking dangerous diseases is shutting down. Predict, a pandemic preparedness program, thrived under Bush and Obama. Now it’s canceled … Ever since the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has run a project to track and research these diseases, called Predict. At a cost of $207 million during its existence, the program has collected more than 100,000 samples and found nearly 1,000 novel viruses, including a new Ebola virus … But on Friday, the New York Times reported that the US government is shutting down the program. According to its former director Dennis Carroll, the program enjoyed enthusiastic support under Bush and Obama, but “things got complicated” in the last few years until the program “essentially collapsed.” … That’s a shame, and it’s indicative of a bigger problem. While pandemics make the news when they happen, efforts to understand, predict, and prevent them are underfunded. The US government has several agencies that do work on pandemic preparedness, but experts say that much more leadership in the area is needed … Predict’s mission, according to USAID, is “detection and discovery of zoonotic” — that is, animal-originating — “diseases at the wildlife-human interface.” Anywhere where wild animals live in close contact with humans, there’s potential for disease transmission. Humans can kill and eat wild animals, exposing themselves to diseases.
Another story from early February:
Shutdown of PREDICT Infectious Disease Program Challenged by Senators Warren and King … The joint letter follows-up on a November request from Senator King, who asked for information on USAID’s decision to end PREDICT. In response to Senator King’s initial letter, USAID indicated that it intends to initiate a successor project – but just two months away from the project’s March 2020 closure, no additional details regarding this replacement have been released.