For most people, trying to pare their tax bill is simply common sense. But the recent surge in so-called inversion deals is raising the ire of everyone from activists to the Obama administration.
To be sure, the strategy isn't new as a way for multinational corporations to reduce their tax burden. But a recent pickup in the number of businesses using the method is raising red flags, with several large companies recently having bought or merged with foreign firms in order to reincorporate in tax havens overseas.
Like many hot-button topics on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, tax inversions involve money -- lots of it. By moving their headquarters outside the U.S., companies that use the technique will avoid paying almost $20 billion in taxes over the next decade, according to a study from the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Since 1983, 76 U.S. corporations have moved their tax domiciles out of the country, with the pace picking up in recent years, the Congressional Research Service said this month.
In one such transaction, for instance, Walgreen (WAG) is considering moving its base to Switzerland as part of a $16 billion deal to buy the 55 percent of U.K. drugstore chain Alliance Boots it doesn't already own. That would cost taxpayers $4 billion in lost revenue, advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness said last month.
The statutory corporate tax rate in the U.S. is 35 percent, and while many companies use techniques to reduce their tax bills, inversions are increasingly attractive. Ireland, for instance, has a corporate tax rate of just 12.5 percent.
This week, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew wrote to members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, urging lawmakers to take action.
"What we need as a nation is a new sense of economic patriotism, where we all rise or fall together," Lew wrote in the letter. "We should not be providing support for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes."
But it's unlikely that anything will change anytime soon, despite "domestic political noise" about the practice, political risk consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a report Friday. That's because the Obama administration can't affect change on its own, while Congress is unlikely to tackle tax reform ahead of the November midterm elections.
Inversions have been concentrated in the pharmaceutical industry, which is seeking savings as insurers pressure the companies on drug prices, as well as in the retail, manufacturing and consumer industries. Since 2009, seven corporate tax inversions have taken place, while there are currently 11 pending or under consideration, according to the Ways and Means Committee Democrats.
Below are five of the biggest tax inversions that have been announced this year alone.