Later this morning, President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner will outline their new proposals for cracking down on offshore tax havens. According to the Wall Street Journal:
It aims to change the legal treatment of offshore subsidiaries and structures that companies have used to avoid not only U.S. taxes, but taxes in other developed countries as well.
In addition, the administration will strive to tighten rules that have encouraged thousands of Americans to open offshore bank accounts in an effort to duck U.S. taxes. The plan would increase information reporting and tax withholding as well as penalties, and make it harder for foreign account-holders to win cases in court. The administration promised new enforcement tools to crack down on tax-haven abuse.
It is unclear from the preliminary news reports whether the proposals will also target the issue of transfer of intangible (specifically patents) to low tax countries. As we noted in our report, Intangible Asset Monetization: The Promise and the Reality, companies can transfer their intellectual property to subsidiaries located in countries where the royalty income is tax at a low rate or not taxed at all. The parent company “sells” the IP to the subsidiary and then pays royalties to that subsidiary for the use of the IP. The key question is the fair market value of that transfer. US law requires that the transfer be valued at the same level as if it was an arms-length transaction between two independent entities. The parent would then pay US taxes on that income.
However, as recently as 2006, then IRS Commissioner Mark Everson complained to a Senate subcommittee that:
Taxpayers, especially in the high technology and pharmaceutical industries, are shifting profits offshore through a variety of arrangements that result in the transfer of valuable intangibles to related foreign entities for inadequate consideration.
In other words, they are low balling the value of the IP, “selling” it cheaply so as to minimize the amount of US taxes they have to pay on the income from those sales. The US loses in two ways, the tax on the income from the sale and the tax on the income from the royalties.
By the way, this concern over internal transfer pricing is at the heart of many corporate tax issues.
As we note in our report, taxation is an important policy tool that has not yet fully come to grips with the rise of importance of intangibles assets. For example, we have long advocated the expansion of the R&D tax credit into a knowledge tax credit by incorporating tax incentives for investments human capital as well as research.
As part of a review of the intangibles and taxation, we suggest that it might be time to “explore lowering the tax rate on intangible asset royalties, in conjunction with stricter regulations on international transfer-pricing mechanisms and cost-sharing arrangements and on passive investment companies.” The report goes on to say:
Providing a more direct tax incentive to the licensing of intangibles by lowering the rate on intangible asset royalties, such as to the capital gains rate, is a more controversial proposal. This lower rate could be crafted to apply only to royalties for new licenses for a limited time, such as a sliding scale for three years. In crafting such an incentive, safeguards would need to be established to prevent the incentive from being used for simply transferring existing licenses to SPEs and to ensure that the incentive went to new licensing activities only.
In conjunction with such a tax incentive, the problem of tax havens should be addressed. Transfer pricing mechanisms and cost sharing arrangements need to prevent those transfers that, as the IRS describes, are “for inadequate consideration.” The issue (some would say the abuse) of “passive investment companies” should also be handled.
The notion of tax havens and loopholes is often a matter of perspective. One person’s loophole is another person’s incentive. However, there is a growing concern that the tax code has become overly complex and that rates could be lowered in conjunction with the elimination of certain specific provisions. Any such tax reform, including the possibility of closing loopholes currently applied to intangibles and lowering the tax rate on royalties, should be looked at very carefully in the context of the impact on the creation and utilization of intangible assets
From some of the press reports, this appears to be in part the strategy that the Obama Administration wants to use — tighten up the overseas tax havens to raise funds to pay for other business tax incentives, such as the R&D tax credit.
We will see if it extends to other areas of taxation of intangibles as well.