Why the Pfizer-Allergan Breakup Could Be Bad News for Apple and Alphabet

With the publishing of the notorious bombshell Panama Papers, it is now clear how pervasive and universal tax evasion is, even and especially by the very people who levy those taxes in the first place. Corporations using legal tricks to lighten their tax burden may be criticized politically, but at least it isn’t hypocritical.

The breakup of the $160 billion merger between Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and Allergan PLC (NYSE: AGN) is a failed attempt by Pfizer to cut $1 billion off of its annual tax burden by domiciling the Big Pharma giant in Ireland with Allergan. The federal government cut off that option through a new regulation issued just in time by the U.S. Department of Justice, prohibiting these types of mergers.

Ireland should be a familiar name when it comes to lowering corporate tax bills, because both Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Google parent Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) filter their foreign revenues through Ireland in order to lower their own corporate tax bills. General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) does the same thing.

Preventing merger inversions as a tax avoidance strategy may be one thing, but forcing money back into U.S. tax jurisdiction is another. The breakup of the Pfizer-Allergan deal may only be a warning sign for both Apple and Google and any other company filtering money through foreign countries to avoid taxes, but the trend of plugging tax loopholes is clear. If a law can be passed without any congressional debate by the Justice Department prohibiting these moves, then a law can also be passed subjecting foreign revenues to U.S. taxation. All it takes is the political will to do so.

Subjecting foreign revenues to U.S. tax laws is politically advantageous because it allows politicians to raise taxes without having to raise tax rates. That way it looks like they’re not raising taxes when they actually are, and regulation tweaks like these generally don’t have to go through Congress, as in this most recent case.

What Apple and Google should really be worried about then is what President Obama’s successor does on the issue of tax havens. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all favor closing offshore tax loopholes one way or another, but of the three, Sanders’ proposals would affect corporate balance sheets the most.

One of Sanders’ key platform centerpieces is ending offshore tax havens by taxing revenues wherever they are generated rather than where they are stored, without lowering the corporate tax rate. This would dramatically increase corporate tax bills without touching tax rates. Clinton’s platform proposes similar policies, but former President Bill Clinton is widely known to favor amnesty for corporations willing to repatriate their foreign income, which might have rubbed off on Hillary.

As for Trump, he favors ending corporate inversions by lowering the corporate income tax rate to a point that storing money offshore is no longer attractive. In terms of net impact then, Trump’s policy would have little on corporate balance sheets. The only difference would be that companies like Apple and Google would be paying U.S. taxes instead of Irish ones.

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