Nick Shaxson ■ Pfizer and Astrazeneca merger shows US and UK both lose from UK’s predatory tax regime


Update: see this must-read post from Citizens for Tax Justice in the U.S., entitled Why Does Pfizer Want to Renounce Its Citizenship?

From Tax Research UK:

“The  financial press is full of stories about Pfizer this morning, and its planned takeover of Astrazeneca.  A recurring theme is the tax dimension of this story, highlighted in this Bloomberg piece by Jesse Drucker  and also by the FT’s  editorial today.”

In essence, the headquarters of the new company is going to be located in London. But remember our recent story of Fiat moving its tax residence: no new jobs would be created in the UK. From Bloomberg:

“That doesn’t mean any of New York-based Pfizer’s executives would need to move abroad.”

Again, it’s not as if this is a real relocation of headquarters: almost no new jobs will be created in the UK, at enormous cost to U.S. citizens. Bloomberg again:

“This is basically an opportunity to go outside the U.S. and still sell in the U.S. and strip the tax base,” said H. David Rosenbloom, an attorney at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington and director of the international tax program at New York University’s school of law. “If we ever had a legislature in the United States, we could do something about this, but I don’t expect to live that long.”

Tax Research continues – and we’ll quote at length:

“For Pfizer [shareholders] the advantage of this is enormous: it is one of the many US companies that has accumulated an enormous cash pile offshore because it will not repatriate its profits to the US where they would be taxed.  The result, from the US perspective, is that it will lose hand over fist as a consequence of this deal, these funds moving outside its potential taxation for good.

One might add that these mergers are often viciously job-killing affairs, as The Guardian explains. Indeed, Bloomberg Businessweek quotes a former top Pfizer executive:

“If combined, Pfizer-AtraZeneca would likely reduce overall spending on research and development, says John LaMattina, a former chief of global R&D for Pfizer. Specifically, LaMattina says Pfizer has consolidated its oncology research in Southern California after previous acquisitions. Would it do so again after buying AstraZeneca, even though the London-based company is a leader in advanced cancer drugs and the U.K. is dangling rich tax breaks? “If I were a cancer researcher, I’d be worried,” LaMattina says.”

Although the tax shenanigans themselves don’t in themselves immediately kill jobs, such mergers are often substantially tax-driven, so there’s often an indirect link to tax shenanigans and job killing. What is more, as we’ve explained before, abusive corporate tax shenanigans are the economic equivalent of refined sugar  in the human body: empty financial calories with adverse long-term health effects.

Tax Research follows this:

From the UK perspective the problem is equally severe.  As I explained some months ago  on this blog,  arrangements that the Coalition has put in place since coming to into office in 2010  include a tax regime  that deliberately ignores the worldwide income of UK-based companies, leaving them untaxed if they happen to be located in tax havens, as if this is a matter of no consequence to the UK exchequer.  Before 2010, broadly speaking, UK companies were taxed on their worldwide income, albeit  not wholly efficiently.

The consequence of the change that George Osborne introduced was to make the UK itself  into a tax haven [read a potted summary of this horror story unfolding here], and that is exactly what Pfizer wishes to exploit by taking over Astrazeneca  and then relocating  its headquarters, at least notionally, to the UK, to become UK tax resident.  What this would mean is that all of Pfizer’s profits located outside the USA would then fall out of UK tax, altogether,  as well as falling out of US tax,  meaning that this offshore cash pile would then be tax-free, for good.

I stress  that this is not happening  by chance; this is exactly  the sort of  outcome that George Osborne wanted when he made the UK into a tax haven,  justifying this action by saying that it would attract jobs into the UK.

I warned in January that there was no evidence that this policy would create any more work in the UK.  That is now a concern that the FT echoes. In fact,  its concern  is that far from this tax break helping create jobs, it will actually almost certainly destroy UK jobs, and UK research and development activity, because Pfizer appears dedicated to a  tax saving and cost-cutting regime to justify the merger exercise,  and all of those action impact very heavily in the UK.

The consequence is obvious: we now have a tax regime that is undermining the stability of other states, including the USA, at a time when David Cameron says that he is tackling international tax avoidance, and we have a domestic consequence of that new tax regime that sees it destroying jobs, undermining our research capacity, and makes it clear that financial engineering is the only service that we have to offer to the world. When Osborne  said he wanted to diversify the UK economy he was lying: financial speculation is now the only game in town, and he’s promoting it.

A sorry state of affairs all round.

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