Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Surprise: The real cost of inversions are paid by shareholders

There are several companies I own, which are trying to do a corporate inversion, in an effort to renounce their US corporate citizenship. This inversion is achieved when a US based company buys a foreign corporation, and as a result moves its legal domicile in the foreign country. As a result, the new combined company would be treated as a non-US company in the eyes of the US tax authorities. This is appealing to companies, because they would only owe US income taxes on income derived solely from US operations.

Under current laws and regulations, US companies that earn money abroad have to pay steep tax bills if they were to repatriate those funds to the homeland, in order to pay dividends, buy back stock or invest in the business. Once an inversion is complete however, these companies would not owe any taxes on income that is earned from foreign operations. As I discussed earlier, most of the companies that dividend investor tend to buy earn a very high percentage of revenues from abroad. This is the nice thing about owning a solid blue chip, which sells branded products and services around the globe, and earns more money to pay higher dividends to you over time.

There are some details that need to be met in order to do this inversion, such as the fact that at least 20% of shareholders of the new company need to be foreign, but this is not the point of this article. The important thing to remember is that inversions generally help reduce the tax rates of companies. From a tax perspective, if you are a US company and your top income tax rate is 35%, it does make sense to relocate to Ireland and pay a tax rate of 12.50%, if you can get away with it. This is essentially what an inversion does.

As a shareholder, less expenses translates into more earnings per share. In addition, cash that is locked abroad for so many US companies that do business internationally will now be easier to access for dividends, share buybacks, investment in the business. Furthermore, if the company relocated to a place like UK for example, dividend income is not subject to any withholding taxes to the US investor. Hence, those shares could still be held in tax-deferred accounts such as IRA’s. So at first glance, it seems like inversions are a good thing to shareholders of the acquirer, since they will result in higher earnings per share, and the possibility for higher dividends and share prices as a result.

As I dug deeper however, I learned that there is a tax that ordinary shareholders like you and me have to pay on inversions. When the tax inversion occurs, shareholders of the acquirer will be treated as if they sold their stock and then purchased the stock in the new, “inverted” company. This creates a taxable event, which means that investors would have to pay a tax on their gains. If the price at which investors acquired their shares was higher, then they might end up deducting losses. In the cases of Medtronic (MDT) and Abbvie (ABBV) however, I believe that most long-term investors are sitting at nice unrealized gains. The only consolation is that stock basis would be stepped up after this exercise. However, the forced tax leakage would be costly for long-term investors like me.

My cost basis in companies like Abbvie (ABBV), Medtronic (MDT) and Walgreens (WAG) is around 2 times lower than current prices ( I have been acquiring shares in each of the companies and their predecessors between 2008 and 2013). Only a small portion of my positions in each company is in tax-deferred accounts. For example, my basis in Abbvie is $29.43/share, while my basis in Medtronic is around $35/share.

I try to seldom sell, because I have to pay taxes. This reduces amount of money I have working for me. By not selling, I have a deferred tax liability to the IRS, which I hope to never pay. This is money I owe, but I don’t pay interest on. This is essentially float, that further helps me achieve financial freedom. It also means I have more money compounding for me. If I sell, I pay tax, and have less money to invest. The opportunity cost of a dollar paid in taxes, that grows by 10%/year for 50 years is $117. At a 3% yield, this is almost $3.50 in income in 50 years, for each dollar I put to work today. That is $1 less working for my descendants or my charitable causes.

These are not good news for any long-term holders like me, who have low tax bases. This is another reason I am trying to max out any tax-deferred accounts, in an effort to shield as much of my money from the crippling effect of annual taxes on my capital gains and dividends. Those friction costs do cost money, that means less money available for my dividend machine to use for its compounding purposes. Either way, over time, expansion of a business is good, since synergies are achieved, taxes are lowered, and this improves the earnings capability of the business. This increases the worth of the business, and the ability to pay higher dividends over time. The ability to pay dividends is further increased by the ability to access cash stored abroad at ease. So the net effect could be positive of course for the patient long-term holder. The effects would be really positive for the patient long-term holder, who placed their shares in a tax-deferred vehicle such as a Roth IRA.

I guess I am learning something new every day. Today is no exception. I thought this was a good deal for shareholders, since corporate taxes will decrease, which increases EPS, and allows companies to be able to access cash abroad for purposes of higher dividends and buybacks. However, this has to be weighed against the tax hit which many long-term investors are facing. What is really bad is the fact that most stock is owned through mutual funds, which do not care about many things such as corporate governance, taxes etc. For those who believe index funds are the way to go, you are one of the reasons why corporate managements think they can do what they want to do. When you have passive owners, who do not believe “active management” produces alpha, you are setting up really perverse incentives for management on executive compensation, corporate strategy, short-term thinking etc.

Hat tip to a reader in France, for alerting me to this topic.

Full Disclosure: Long ABBV, MDT, WAG

Relevant Articles:

My Retirement Strategy for Tax-Free Income
Dividends Provide a Tax-Efficient Form of Income
Roth IRA’s for Dividend Investors
Why should companies pay out dividends?
Dividends versus Share Buybacks/Stock repurchases

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