Puerto Rico, Transfer Pricing, and Kevin Hassett

October 13, 2017
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Puerto Rico, Transfer Pricing, and Kevin Hassett

Scott Greenberg provided a nice summary of what section 936 was and how its expiration had contributed to Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal difficulties:

beginning in 1976, section 936 of the tax code granted U.S. corporations a tax exemption from income originating from U.S. territories. In addition to section 936, the Puerto Rican corporate tax code gave significant incentives for U.S. corporations to locate subsidiaries on the island. Puerto Rican tax law allowed a subsidiary more the 80% owned by a foreign entity to deduct 100% of the dividends paid to its parent. As such, subsidiaries in Puerto Rico had no corporate income tax liability as long as their profits are distributed as dividends. When section 936 was in effect, U.S. corporations benefited greatly from locating subsidiaries in Puerto Rico. Income generated by these subsidiaries could be paid to U.S. parents as dividends, which were not subject to U.S. corporate income tax under section 936, and were deductible from Puerto Rico’s corporate income tax. Because of these generous tax incentives for business, Puerto Rico grew rapidly throughout the 20th century and developed a substantial manufacturing sector, though it remained relatively poor compared to the U.S. mainland. However, because section 936 made foreign investment in Puerto Rico artificially attractive – creating, in effect, an economic bubble – it left the island vulnerable to a crash if the tax provisions were ever to be repealed.

The story is that starting in 2006, the IRS would treat the Puerto Rican affiliates of life science companies as contract manufacturers which would greatly reduce the transfer pricing manipulation made legal under section 936. Greenberg notes:

2006 also marked the beginning of a deep recession for Puerto Rico, which has lasted until today. Puerto Rico’s high corporate taxes on domestic corporations along with low taxes on U.S. subsidiaries had skewed the Puerto Rican economy toward foreign investment from the U.S. When section 936 was repealed in 2006, foreign investment began to flee. Without a strong domestic corporate presence to fill the void, the economy began to contract, along with tax revenues.

Brad Setser has been examining certain trade data finding something that might seem surprising:

The largest supplier of imports to Puerto Rico? Ireland. The second largest? Singapore. Tax trumps gravity, it seems. Incidentally, Switzerland jumped into third place in the 2016 league table, leaping past other exporters of chemicals and Puerto Rico’s suppliers of fuel oil, diesel, and the like. It isn’t exactly hard to figure out what is going on here. Puerto Rico’s imports tend to be specialty organic chemicals and pharmaceutical products, and, well, they tend to be supplied from countries that are known to specialize in helping multinationals optimize their global tax bill. And, setting aside trade with the fifty states for the moment, where are Puerto Rico’s biggest export markets? Belgium and the Netherlands. The big ports and distribution centers in northwest Europe. Europe is almost certainly buying packaged pharmaceuticals—Puerto Rico’s biggest export to the world translates from trade jargon to “medicine, in measured doses, packaged for retail.” It is a bit too simple to say Puerto Rico imports active pharmaceutical ingredients from low-tax jurisdictions and exports finished pharmaceuticals to high-tax jurisdictions. The imports from Ireland and Singapore could be for pharmaceuticals destined for the U.S. market, and the active ingredients for the finished goods exported to Rotterdam and Antwerp may be coming from the United States.

Litigations between the IRS and companies such as Eaton, Guidant, and Medtronic show that certain multinationals are still trying to pretend that the Puerto Rican affiliate deserve a significant amount of profits. As Paul Krugman notes:

As Setser notes, Puerto Rico used to be a major tax haven for manufacturing corporations. Much of this tax advantage has now ended, but its legacy is still visible in trade statistics. Specifically, PR runs, on paper, a huge trade surplus in pharmaceuticals – $30 billion a year, almost half the island’s GNP. Yes, “N” not “D” – very important in this case, as in Ireland . But the pharma surplus is basically a phantom, driven by transfer pricing: pharma subsidiaries in Ireland charge themselves low prices on inputs they buy from their overseas subsidiaries, package them, then charge themselves high prices on the medicine they sell to, yes, their overseas subsidiaries. The result is that measured profits pop up in Puerto Rico – profits that are then paid out in investment income to non-PR residents. So this trade surplus does nothing for PR jobs or income.

Paul’s real issue, however, was a recent speech by Kevin Hassett – which I also noted:

What does this have to do with Hassett? Well, he told TPC – while insulting the institution and impugning its integrity – that transfer pricing driven by high nominal US corporate taxes is responsible for half the U.S. trade deficit, and that cutting these taxes would therefore be a big job creator. Never mind whether his estimate is right: even if it were, as Gleckman says, changing the transfer pricing would affect the accounting, but nothing real. It would be exactly like Puerto Rico’s pharma surplus: a phantom improvement, statistically impressive to the uninformed but signifying nothing.

Here is where I have a favor to ask for those who are better at understanding the breezy way Hassett used and abused certain literature. Paul and I both have our doubts as to this claim that transfer pricing manipulation is responsible for half of the U.S. trade deficit – a claim that Hassett made around the 19th minute of his speech to the TPC (see my post or Gleckman’s for a link to it). Hassett does mumble something about an NBER paper that used a “formulary apportionment” approach, which strikes me as not the right way to capture these things. But I want to be fair and actually read this alleged NBER paper, which alas I have not been able to find. I would love it if someone actually gave us a proper citation so we can check on this bold claim even if it has little to do with the real debate as to the alleged employment effects from corporate tax rates.

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