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.