Lessons On How To Stage A Tea Party From British CEOs

Manisha Singh Global Policy Consultant
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Domestic economic stagnation remains a major issue in elections around the world, including in the upcoming election in the U.K. Corporate leaders stepped into the fray between the incumbent Conservative Party and opposition Labour party, expressing very specific views about government policies that affect the economy.

Over 100 prominent CEOs of U.K. based companies penned a letter to the Telegraph advising that measures taken by the Conservative government have been good for Britain’s economic growth and a reversal would be dangerous. Staging a tea party of their own, one of the policies they specifically cite as having been beneficial to investment is the reduction in the corporate tax rate. The David Cameron-led Conservatives have, over time, lowered that rate to 20 percent.

Here in the U.S., faced with a high corporate tax rate and outdated tax code yet to be addressed, many American companies have engaged in corporate inversion transactions in order to control their circumstances. Inversions occur when a U.S. company merges with an overseas based partner and makes the foreign partner the parent company at the close of the merger. The new company’s headquarters are domiciled in the overseas location, and are therefore taxed under the lower foreign tax rate. U.S. executives do state that tax benefits are but one reason for inversion transactions.

Rather than work to address the underlying problem, the Obama dministration called the practice of inversions “unpatriotic” and issued a notice of new rules targeting these transactions last September. The notice was controversial for both substantive and procedural reasons.  Members of Congress and the tax policy community have criticized the administration for the move because they indicate the action should be more a matter of legislative prerogative, while business groups assert it amounts to retroactive taxation.

After the notice was issued, the merger of AbbVie, Inc., an Illinois based pharmaceutical company, with Ireland-headquartered Shire Plc was terminated and required a break-up fee of a $1.64 billion, the third largest ever paid according to the Wall Street Journal. The Obama administration may have won a small victory against inversions, but as AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez explained, the bigger problem of disadvantages for American companies and for investment in the U.S. remains.

In spite of the executive action targeting them, inversion transactions continue, and the U.K. has benefited due to its lowered tax rate. Georgia headquartered ARRIS Group, Inc., a broadband media technology company recently announced it would acquire Pace plc, a maker of set-top boxes based in the U.K. The combined company, New ARRIS, is to be headquartered in the U.K. and thus, governed under the U.K. tax rules.

Instead of making a serious effort to reform the U.S. tax code, members of Congress introduced legislation making inversion transactions less beneficial or preventing inverted companies from receiving government contracts. Abbott Labs CEO Miles White points out that such legislation is not tax reform, and under the current tax code, inversions are legal. He also maintains that one benefit of these transactions is ultimately the U.S. consumer gets lower priced products.

While President Obama paints a picture of an improved economy and strong employment, others agree that this is the worst recovery after a recession in modern history. The reality is that whatever the situation may be at present, it would be wise for our elected officials to start taking a longer term view of American economic health, rather than using temporary approaches like the anti-inversion bills. And though U.S. CEOs have defended their tax strategies in general terms, perhaps it’s time for them to follow the approach of the U.K. CEOs and take the bold step of staging a tea party of their own on corporate tax reform by identifying specifically who and what would be beneficial for a long term economic recovery.