MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Live Well on Less by Retiring Overseas

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I hear a lot about people retiring overseas to make their retirement savings go further. My wife and I are pretty adventurous. But can we really save money retiring in another country?

A: Retiring abroad isn’t for everyone—but more and more people are doing it. Nearly 550,000 Americans receive their Social Security benefits abroad, up from nearly 400,000 in 2000, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a small number compared to the 43 million people over 65 receiving Social Security benefits. Still, 3.3 million of America’s 78 million Baby Boomers say they are interested in retiring abroad, according to Travel Market Report.

The growing interest in overseas living isn’t all that surprising, considering the worries of many pre-retirees about making their money last. There’s no question that you can live well on less in many countries. But to make that happen, you’ll need to plan carefully, says Dan Prescher, an editor at International Living, which publishes guides on the best places to retire overseas.

For most Americans, the biggest savings are a result of the lower prices for health care and housing overseas, says Prescher, who lives in Ecuador with his wife Suzan Haskins. The couple co-authored a book. The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas On A Budget.

Most countries have a national healthcare system that cover all residents, and monthly premiums are often less than $100. It’s relatively easy to become a resident of another country, which typically involve proving you’ll have at least a modest amount of income, perhaps $1,000 a month.

But quality of health services varies, so research carefully, especially if you have medical problems. Even in countries with well-rated health care systems, the best services are centered around metropolitan areas. “Larger cities have more hospitals and doctors. The farther out you go, the quicker the quality falls off,” says Prescher.

Though Medicare doesn’t cover you if you live abroad, it’s still an option, and one that you should probably keep open. If you sign up—you’re eligible at age 65—and keep paying your premiums, you can use Medicare when you are back in the U.S.

Home prices, property taxes and utilities can be significantly lower in Mexico and countries in Central and South America, which are popular with U.S. retirees. In Mexico, you can find a nice three-bedroom villa near the beach for as little as $150,000, says Prescher.

But you’ll pay a premium for many other needs. Gas and utilities can cost a lot more than in the U.S. And you will also pay far more for anything that needs to be imported, such as computers and electronics or American food and clothing. “A can of Campbell soup can easily cost $4.50,” says Prescher. “You have to ruthlessly profile yourself, and see what you can or can’t live without, when you are figuring out your spending in retirement.”

Then there are taxes. As long as you’re a U.S. citizen, you have to pay income taxes to the IRS, no matter where you live or where your assets are located. Even if you don’t owe taxes, you must file a return. If you have financial accounts with more than $10,000 in a foreign bank, you must file forms on those holdings. In addition, the new Foreign Accounts and Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign banks to file U.S. paperwork for ex-pat accounts, has made many of them wary of working with Americans. You may also need to pay taxes in the country where you reside if you own assets there.

Check out safety issues too. Use the State Department’s Retirement Abroad advisory for information for country-specific reports on crimes, infrastructure problems and even scams that target Americans abroad.

The best way to find out if retiring abroad is for you is to spend as much time in your favorite city or village before you commit. Go during the off-season, when it may be rainy or super hot. See how difficult it is to get the things you want and what’s available at the grocery store. Read the local papers and check out online resources. In addition to International Living’s annual Best Places to Retire Overseas rankings, AARP writes about retiring abroad and Expatinfodesk.com publishes relocation guides.

The most valuable information will come from talking to other ex-pats when you’re visiting the country, as well a through message boards and online communities. “You’ll find that ex-pats have to have a sense of adventure and patience to understand that things are done differently,” says Prescher. “For many people, it’s a retirement dream come true.”

TIME

Sometimes the Government Puts Money in Our Pockets

Cash Money Dollar Bills
Getty Images

The percentage of women who get free birth control has skyrocketed since Obamacare went into effect, providing new ammunition for the political wars over Obamacare as well as the cultural wars over birth control. But there’s been almost no attention paid to the practical effect of this trend: It’s the equivalent of a modest tax cut for millions of women whose insurers used to require co-payments. It’s putting money in ordinary people’s pockets.

These days, the big economic story is about inequality, about a recovery that’s benefited the rich more than the poor, about middle-class wages that haven’t increased in fifteen years. It’s an important story. But the storytellers often overlook a variety of public policies that have helped offset the structural trends widening the gap between the rich and the rest. “Instead of promoting equality,” Tom Edsall wrote in a recent New York Times jeremiad, “public policy has…bestow[ed] the benefits of growth on the very few.” In fact, the government has put money into ordinary people’s pockets in all kinds of ways.

The most obvious way has been tax cuts. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill—a topic I’ve discussed at some length—included $300 billion in tax cuts, mostly for the non-rich. The centerpiece was called Making Work Pay, which provided up to $800 a year for the bottom 95% of working families, and was later converted into a payroll tax credit worth up to $2,136 a year before it expired in 2012. Most stimulus tax cuts were “refundable,” which meant low-income workers who don’t pay income taxes—the “47 percent” that Mitt Romney was caught denigrating on video—would be eligible to benefit. When Obama famously told former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor “elections have consequences, Eric, and I won,” he was talking about refundable tax cuts for the poor, which House Republicans opposed but could not block.

This extra money for the poor and middle class doesn’t show up in charts illustrating how the rich are vacuuming up all the recovery’s income and wealth. Those charts and the pundits who love them also tend to ignore the impact of Obama’s tax hikes on the rich, especially his repeal of the Bush tax cuts on income over $400,000. In his Times essay, titled “America Out of Whack,” Edsall speculates at length about the impossibility of redistributive taxation in modern Washington, somehow failing to mention that it just happened in a big way last year. As Zachary Goldfarb calculated for a Washington Post piece on inequality in July, repeal cost the average member of the top 0.1% income bracket nearly half a million dollars.

Obamacare is also financed by hefty new taxes on the rich, including a 3.8% hike on investment income and a 0.9% hike on earned income above $250,000. But its main push against inequality will be its health benefits for the uninsured and underinsured. Free birth control is just one example. There’s also free primary care and other preventive services. Families up to 138% of the poverty line are now eligible for Medicaid benefits in participating states. The law also eliminated the “donut hole,” reducing drug costs for seniors. None of this will show up in the inequality data, but it all helps make ordinary Americans less financially insecure. And so far, Obamacare insurance premiums have been significantly lower than expected, which means more money in ratepayer pockets. Jason Furman, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, says the combination of Obamacare plus progressive tax changes has offset a decade’s worth of rising inequality.

There are many less memorable ways that public policy has tried to narrow the gap. For example, the stimulus, if you’ll pardon my obsession, also sent $250 checks to retirees and disabled veterans, increased Pell Grants for low-income students by more than $600, and expanded unemployment benefits by $25 a week. Oh, and the stimulus—along with the much-maligned Wall Street bailouts and the Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies—helped prevent a depression, a very good thing for the poor and middle class as well as the wealthy and the Dow. The 10 million new jobs created in this recovery didn’t all go to rich people.

The stimulus also financed energy-efficiency retrofits of more than 1 million low-income homes, which will save families money and power for decades to come. And beyond the stimulus, the Department of Energy estimates that the Obama administration’s new energy-efficiency mandates for refrigerators, air conditioners and dozens of other appliances will save consumers $450 billion on their electric bills through 2030. The administration’s strict fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks are expected save drivers another $500 billion. That’s real money.

Even the federal response to the foreclosure crisis, widely perceived as an abysmal failure, has provided financial help to millions of Americans in need. The most important move, widely perceived as a gift to undeserving corporations, was the $400 billion government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which kept mortgage credit flowing at a time when no one else would provide it, averted a dramatic increase in mortgage rates, and helped 26 million homeowners reduce their monthly payments by refinancing their mortgages by 2014. Federal programs like HARP (which helped 3 million of those homeowners refinance) and HAMP (which helped modify another 1.3 million loans) were slow and often inefficient, but low mortgage rates—maintained by the Federal Reserve’s aggressive purchases of mortgage-backed securities as well as the government backstop for Fannie and Freddie—meant money in the bank for anyone with an adjustable-rate mortgage.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether government should be in the business of redistribution—what Obama called “spreading the wealth” in his 2008 chat with Joe the Plumber—but we should recognize that it is. The inequality trends, as severe as they are, would be far more severe without government intervention. Yes, the average CEO earns almost as much in a day as the average worker earns in a year, but government—through progressive taxation, the safety net, public education and other public services, and the policies of the last five years—has been pushing back.

Is it pushing back hard enough? Well, reasonable people can disagree about that, too.

 

MONEY inversion

Everything You Need to Know About Companies Leaving America for Taxes

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew speaks in the Cash Room of the Treasury Department in Washington D.C.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew Bao Dandan—Xinhua Press/Corbis

The Obama administration is trying to stop corporate "inversions." A closer look at how they work, and what the Treasury is doing about them.

In the midst of a wave of U.S. companies including Burger King, Medtronic and AbbVie moving to foreign locales, the Treasury Department announced Monday new rules to make it harder for a corporation to save on taxes by changing its home address. For many Americans, the idea that a company can reduce what it owe to Uncle Sam just by leaving is frustrating, but also, frankly, a bit baffling. Here are some answers:

People keep saying that companies that move abroad for taxes are doing an ” inversion.” What’s inverted about it?

The way most of these deals work is that a big American company buys a smaller foreign one. But then the org chart flips over: The little foreign company’s headquarters become, at least on paper, the HQ of the new global company. The large American company is now a foreign one, and taxed according to that country’s rules.

What does that change about how the company is run? Does it mean American jobs are going overseas?

A tax inversion doesn’t have to change much at all about how the company is run, or where anybody works. It’s really just a change of official address.

Tellingly, the U.S.-based pharma company AbbVie ABBVIE INC. ABBV 0.0171% , which is acquiring Shire as part of an inversion move, is moving its HQ to the island of Jersey. The British Crown dependency is not really a hub for… well, much of anything. Besides really attractive tax laws.

Wait, it can’t possibly be that easy–you mean you just buy a foreign company and now you don’t have to pay U.S. taxes?

You’re right, it’s not that simple. This move only changes the taxes U.S. companies owe on their foreign profits.

The United States has what’s known “worldwide” taxation, meaning that corporations owe income taxes on profits wherever they earn them. Many other countries only tax income earned in that country. As explained here by economist Kimberly Clausing in a paper for the Tax Policy Center, companies get a credit on their U.S. taxes to offset taxes paid abroad, so that they aren’t liable twice on the same income. Still, U.S. corporate rates, which go up to 35%, are often higher than what’s owed to other governments. So by inverting, the company can pay less tax on its foreign income.

But the company still owes taxes on whatever profits it earns in the U.S. So, for example, when Burger King BURGER KING WORLDWIDE INC BKW -0.2345% acquired Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons and moved its HQ north, it didn’t automatically get out of paying American taxes on Whoppers sold in Dayton and Miami and L.A. It did, however, ensure it won’t owe the IRS anything on doughnut profits in Ontario and Quebec. And if the company expands to new countries, moving its address out of the U.S. will have given it even more tax savings.

If inverted companies are still paying U.S. taxes on the business they do here, is this really such a problem?

Ah, but wait, there’s more. Enter the very clever accountants. There may be ways for a multinational company to shift its income around to lower its taxes on U.S. profits. As Stephen Shay of Harvard Law has explained, an inverted company, now that it’s foreign, can make a loan to its U.S. unit. That moves money from the U.S. business to the foreign parent, while the interest payments reduce its taxable U.S. income.

The move can also help a company get out of paying taxes it otherwise would have owed on past profits. Companies generally don’t have to pay taxes on foreign earnings until they bring them back to the U.S., for example to pay to shareholders in the form of dividends or stock buybacks. As a result, many global companies have built up billions in assets abroad. But after an inversion, notes Clausing, the new company can use loans between foreign affiliates in a game of “hopscotch” that effectively allows the new, foreign parent company to get its hands on the money without creating a U.S. tax liability.

Bottom line: Though inversions probably don’t cost American jobs, they do reduce tax revenues.

What does the White House want to do about it?

As Fortune reports, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says new Treasury regulations will make inversions less attractive for companies. First, it will crackdown on the “hopscotch” move, making it harder for a company to avoid taxes when turning money from foreign subsidiaries into cash that can go shareholders. It will also strengthen an existing “80% rule,” which says the American company’s value must be less than 80% of that of the new, combined company. (In other words, a company can’t invert by buying just any tiny little foreign firm–it has to find a merger partner that would make up 20% of the combined corporation.) Companies were getting around that rule, the Treasury says, with accounting moves to deflate the value of the U.S. company or inflate the size of the foreign one.

Shouldn’t, um, Congress be handling this?

Everybody on the Hill says inversions are just a symptom of a messed up tax code. The trouble is Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided on how to fix it. The GOP wants to move away from the worldwide tax system to a “territorial” one, so taxes are owed based on where they are earned. This would end inversion by making it unnecessary–a company’s foreign earnings would be free from U.S. taxes no matter where they kept their headquarters. Democrats have generally opposed this, preferring to impose new rules making it harder to use foreign subsidiaries as tax havens. Lawmakers in both parties have proposed cutting the top corporate rate.

MONEY Taxes

How Identity Thieves Stole $5.2 Billion from the IRS

Invisible Man at computer
Getty Images

And how to make sure you won't be their next target.

More than $5 billion, with a B: that’s how much the IRS estimates it mistakenly paid to identity thieves last year, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office. The thieves filed fraudulent tax returns on behalf of unsuspecting citizens, and the IRS didn’t catch the fraud until after long after the refund checks had been sent. The only good news? It could have been a lot more money. The IRS estimates it identified and stopped another $24.2 billion in attempted fraud — but the agency acknowledges it’s hard to calculate the full extent of the problem.

Here’s how thieves get away with it: You usually receive a W-2 from your employer by the end of January, then file your tax return by April 15. During that time, thieves steal your identifying information, file fake returns on your behalf, and collect the refund check. It all happens pretty quickly, since the IRS tries to issue your refund within three weeks of receiving your return.

Employers have until March to send their W-2s to the Social Security Administration, which later forwards the documents to the IRS. The IRS doesn’t begin checking tax returns against employers’ W-2s until July. The GAO has found that it can take a year or longer for the IRS to complete the checks and catch the theft.

The easiest way you can deter this kind of fraud? File early, and file electronically. Once the IRS receives a return with your social security number, the agency will reject any duplicate filings and notify you right away. The IRS is also piloting an initiative to issue single-use identity protection PIN numbers to taxpayers who have verified their identities.

Still, the danger could be growing: As recently as 2010, tax- and wage-related identity theft made up just 16% of all ID-theft complaints at the Federal Trade Commission. Last year that portion rose to 43%. Below are four more common ways ID thieves can strike — and what you can do to protect yourself.

1) Purloined paper.

Have tax documents sent to a P.O. box or delivered electronically so they can’t go missing. Shred extra copies. “Your tax return needs to be treated as an item of extreme privacy,” says Staten Island CPA John Vento.

2) Unsecure networks.

Never file electronically over public Wi-Fi or a network that’s not password-protected. Make sure you have up-to-date antivirus software and a firewall on your home computer.

3) Dodgy emails.

Be leery of any email claiming to be an IRS notice of an outstanding refund or a pending investigation; the IRS will never email you to request sensitive information. Forward suspect messages to phishing@irs.gov. Other electronic traps: fake websites similar to irs.gov, and tweets purporting to be from the IRS (@IRSnews is the verified handle).

4) Phone fakes.

In October of last year, the IRS warned of a sophisticated phone scam in which callers already knew the last four digits of your Social Security number and mimicked the IRS toll-free number on your caller ID. If the IRS calls you out of the blue, hang up and call back (800-829-1040).

This advice was excerpted from MONEY’s 2014 Tax Guide.

MONEY The Economy

Alaska Gives Every Resident $1,900 Cash… Just for Being an Alaskan

One big, literal payoff of living in Alaska is the annual Permanent Fund Dividend given to each qualifying Alaskan. This year's check will be one of the largest ever.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Right Way to Tap Your IRA in Retirement

Q: When I do my IRA required minimum distribution I take some extra money out and move it to a taxable account. Good idea or bad idea? Thanks – Bill Faye, Rockville, MD

A: After years of accumulating money for retirement, figuring out what to do with “extra” money withdrawn from your IRA accounts seems like a nice problem to have. But required minimum distributions, or RMDs, can be tricky.

First, a bit of background on managing RMDs. These withdrawals are a requirement under IRS rules, since Uncle Sam wants to collect the taxes you’ve deferred on contributions to your IRAs or 401(k)s. You must take your distribution by April 1st of the year you turn 70 ½; subsequent RMDs are due by December 31st each year. If you don’t take the distribution, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to regular income tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

The size of your required withdrawal depends on your age and the account balance. (You can find the details on the IRS website here.) If you’re over 59 ½, you can take out higher amounts than the minimum required, but the excess withdrawals don’t count toward your future distributions. Still, by managing your IRAs the right way, you can preserve more of your portfolio and possibly reduce taxes, says Mary Pucciarelli, a financial advisor with MetLife Premier Client Group.

For those fortunate enough to hold more than one IRA, you must calculate the withdrawal amount based on all your accounts. But you can take the money out of any combination of the IRAs you hold. This flexibility means you can make strategic withdrawals. Say you have an IRA with a big exposure to stocks and the market is down. In that scenario, you might want to pull money from another account that isn’t so stock heavy, so you’re not selling investments at a low point.

You can minimize RMDs by converting one or more of your traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA. Roths don’t have minimum distribution requirements, so you can choose when and how much money you take out. More importantly, you don’t pay taxes on the withdrawals and neither will your heirs if you leave it to them. You will owe taxes on the amount you convert. To get the full benefit of the conversion, consider this move only if you can pay that bill with money outside your IRA. Many investors choose to make the move after they’ve retired and their tax bill is lower. Pucciarelli suggests doing the conversion over time so you can avoid a big tax bill in one year.

Up until this year, you could avoid paying taxes on your RMD by making a qualified charitable contribution directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired in December. It’s possible Congress will renew the tax break, though nothing is certain in Washington. Meanwhile, if you itemize on your taxes, you can deduct your charitable contribution.

As for the extra money you’ve withdrawn, it’s fine to stash it in a taxable account. If you have sufficient cash on hand for living expenses, you can opt for longer-term investments, such as bond or stock funds. But be sure your investments suit your financial goals. “You don’t want to throw your asset allocation out of whack when you move the money,” says Pucciarelli. Consider a tax-efficient option, such as an index stock fund or muni bond fund. That way, Uncle Sam won’t take another big tax bite out of your returns.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Benefits

The Best Company Benefit That You’re Ignoring

Roll of medical gauze unrolling
Gregor Schuster—Getty Images

New rules let you carry over unused funds in your healthcare flexible spending account, and more employers are adding that option. So that's one less excuse for why you're not signing up for this valuable perk at work.

The U.S. Treasury Department changed a rule last October to allow employees to roll over $500 of unspent flexible spending account money, ending years of a use-it-or-lose it policy, but most workers have yet to reap its benefits.

Only 8% of U.S. companies adopted the FSA program this year, according to data from Alegeus Technologies, the largest provider of benefit administration services.

But that figure could jump to as much as 50% in 2015, predicts Alegeus executive chairman Bob Natt.

FSAs allow workers to set aside pretax money for healthcare expenses.

Employees will likely find out if their company is taking part in the rollover program when they get their open enrollment benefit information this fall.

Those offered the new option will be able to place up to $2,500, pretax, in their FSAs, and roll over as much as $500 of unspent money at the end of the year. Those who continue in traditional FSA plans will have to use all their funds by year-end, or when a grace period stipulated by their companies ends.

But the program’s participation rate is meager. About 33 million Americans contribute to an FSA each year. That number includes only a quarter of the workers eligible for it at large corporations, according to benefit consultant Mercer.

That enrollment could be boosted by the new rollover benefit, Alegeus’ Natt says, allowing both employees and employers to benefit from not paying tax on those contributions.

Indeed, there’s already some evidence of the new rule’s pulling power.

PrimePay, a third-party benefit administrator, which heavily promoted the rollover option to clients last year, saw a 30% adoption rate. The companies that participated saw a 17% increase in participants and contribution dollars.

“I was a little disappointed at first,” says Steve Jackson, PrimePay’s senior vice president for strategic development and channel sales. “But then as I saw what Alegeus was finding nationwide, it seemed better.”

FSAs can still be a hard sell to employees.

Rod Leveque, 39, who works in communications in Claremont, Calif., contributed to his FSA for the first time last year, after four years at a company that offered the option. Leveque says his decision was spurred by an impending LASIK eye surgery, for which he expected expenses.

Next year? “I doubt I will continue to participate,” he says. “I don’t think the $500 rollover would sway me, either,” he adds, because his typical medical expenses do not make it worthwhile.

If your company does adopt a rollover model, Natt’s advice is to put at least $500 in, because you are at no risk of losing it. If you leave the company and still have a balance on the books, however, you’ll need to spend that balance down.

Related: How to Pick a Health Plan That’s Right for You

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY Taxes

5 Things to Do Now To Cut Your Tax Bill Next April

If you want to owe less for 2014, start your year-end tax planning today.

When everyone else starts loading their backpacks and shopping the back-to-school sales, I know it is time for me to dive back into TurboTax.

That’s because fall is the perfect time to plan my approach to the tax forms I won’t file until next April. By using the next four months strategically, I may be able to reduce the amount I have to pay then.

This is a particularly easy year to do tax planning, because the rules haven’t changed much from 2013. If you do your own taxes on a program like Intuit’s TurboTax or TaxAct, you can use last year’s version to create a new return using this year’s numbers, and play some what-if games to see how different actions will affect your tax bill.

If you use a tax professional, it’s a good time to ask for a fall review and some advice.

Here are some of the actions to take now and through the end of the year to minimize your 2014 taxes.

1. Feed the tax-advantaged plans. Start by making sure you’re putting the maximum amount possible into your own health savings account, if you have one associated with a high-deductible health plan. That conveys maximum tax advantage for the long term. Also boost the amount you are contributing to your 401(k) plan and your own individual retirement account if you’re not already contributing the maximum.

2. Plan your year-end charitable giving. You probably have decent gains in some stocks or mutual funds. If you give your favorite charity shares of an investment, you can save taxes and help the charity. Instead of selling the shares, paying capital gains taxes on your profits and giving the remainder to your charity, you can transfer the shares, get a charitable deduction for their full value and let the charity—which is not required to pay income taxes—sell the shares. Start early in the year to identify the right shares and the right charity.

3. Take losses, and some gains. If you have any investment losses, you can sell the shares now and lock in the losses. They can help you offset any taxable gains as well as some ordinary income. You can re-buy the same security after 31 days, or buy something different immediately. In some cases, you may want to lock in gains, too. You might sell winners now if you want to make changes to your holdings and have the losses to offset them.

4. Be strategic about the alternative minimum tax. Did you pay it last year? Do you have a lot of children, medical expenses and mortgage interest payments? If so, you may end up subject to the alternative minimum tax, which taxes more of your income (by disallowing some deductions) at a lower tax rate. Robert Weiss, global head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s Advice Lab—a personal finance strategy group—says there are planning opportunities here. If you expect to be in the alternative minimum tax group, you can pull some income into this year—by exercising stock options or taking a bonus before the year ends—and have it taxed at the lower AMT rate. It’s good to get professional advice on this tactic, though. If you pull in too much money you could get kicked out of the AMT and the strategy would backfire.

5. Look at the list of deductible items and plan your approach. Many items, such as union dues, work uniforms, investment management fees and more are deductible once they surpass 2% of your adjusted gross income. Tax advisers often suggest taxpayers “bunch” those deductions into every other year to capture more of them. Check out the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 529 to view the list, and try to determine if you want to amass your deductions this year or next. Then shop accordingly.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

TIME Fast Food

Outrage Over Burger King’s Merger Is Totally Misdirected

A sign stands outside a Burger King restaurant on Nov. 1, 2006 in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The bottom line is it's a solid deal

Outrage is a useful tool in a democracy, but not when it’s directed at the wrong target or ignores the facts. As the criticism of Burger King’s so-called ‘tax inversion’ deal with Canadian fast-casual restaurant and coffee chain Tim Hortons heats up in the political arena, several facts are being blatantly ignored. While it may be ideologically satisfying to label the merger as being unpatriotic because it will deprive the U.S. Treasury of tax dollars, it is also an overblown criticism.

Consider how shareholders of public corporations get taxed. Unlike investors in private companies who get taxed once on their pass-through income, public investors get a double hit.

To take a simple example, for every dollar that a public company makes in income, it has to pay 35% in federal income taxes as well as more in state and local taxes – let’s call it another 5%. The remaining 60 cents are then distributed as dividends to shareholders. Of that 60 cents, the shareholders now have to pay personal taxes in the average range of 20% to 39.6% depending on how long they have held the stock. Again, taking state and local taxes into account, in aggregate then, most shareholders pay somewhere between 55% and 67% in taxes on their investment in a public company.

This analysis, of course, ignores tax loopholes that large public companies are able to take advantage of but such loopholes rarely yield more than a 5-10% benefit, which still leaves shareholders paying an average of 50% in taxes.

Even those who believe in progressive taxation would be hard pressed to agree with this tax scheme. True, shareholders may also achieve gains through the appreciation of their stock, which is not taxed twice, but that is meant to be a bonus to incentivize people to invest, not to be an offset against dividend income. The latter could make tax incentives for investing a zero-sum game, which makes no sense.

From a political standpoint, it may be beneficial to demand that American companies not repatriate abroad for tax reasons, but the merger of Burger King with Tim Hortons has a lot more to do with the tight margins in the burger joint business and the more robust margins in the fast-casual restaurant and coffee chain trades. As Burger King struggles with hyper competition from McDonalds, Chipotle, and Starbucks, it needs to explore expansionary opportunities. The fact that Tim Hortons happens to be in Canada – in this case, at least – is incidental.

Moreover, the likely tax savings for Burger King by a tax inversion would only be around $3.4 million this year, given that Canada’s total corporate tax rate is 26.5% and Burger King paid an actual tax rate of only 27.5% last year, which would not be a lot for a company with more than $1 billion in top-line revenues and $340 million in profits on a run-rate basis for 2014. To put it another way, If the management of Burger King agreed to an $11 billion merger simply because of $3.4 million of cost savings, it would be bad management indeed. However, that is not the case here and all signs, when rationally examined, point to the fact that this deal is important for Burger King’s future growth, which will also benefit its employees, shareholders, and customers.

Questioning mergers based on anti-competitive factors is fine, but questioning the wisdom of patently good corporate deals simply because there are ancillary tax benefits is silly. It distracts from larger issues like labor relations and the pressures of global competition on the American economy, while doing nothing to benefit the discussion about tax reform.

This particular example has no real meat, except perhaps in the press.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius. Sanghoee sits on the Board of Davidson Media Group, a mid-market radio station operator. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is also the author of two thriller novels. Follow him @sanghoee.

MONEY

No, Warren Buffett Is Not a Tax Hypocrite on Burger King

Warren Buffett
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The investor's Berkshire Hathaway is helping to finance a deal that would turn Burger King into a Canadian company for tax purposes.

Burger King and Tim Horton have made it official: They’re planning to merge, and when all is said and done the new headquarters will be in Canada, not the U.S. By using Ontario as the address for the combined company—the operational HQ for BK restaurant will remain in Miami, the company says—the company may stand to pay a lower tax rate. This has linked BK to the roiling political controversy over “inversions,” in which American companies merge with smaller firms located abroad to become foreign companies for tax purposes.

Part of the financing for the deal comes from Berkshire Hathaway, the company run by famed investor Warren Buffett. He’s long been a a critic of the way our tax code favors, in his view, super-wealthy people like him. Back during the 2012 campaign, President Obama, whom Buffett supported, loved to bring up Buffett’s observation that he actually paid a lower tax rate than his secretary. Obama even proposed a “Buffett rule” that anyone earning more than $1 million should pay at least a 30% effective federal rate.

So a critic of the tax code is taxing advantage of what looks like a loophole in the tax code. This has already prompted some to call Buffett a hypocrite. Neil Cavuto at Fox Business doesn’t go to the H-word but says of Buffett: “It sets him up essentially against himself – and his oft-repeated claim those who have more should pay more in taxes.”

No, not really. First, it’s hardly news that Buffett has always been very shrewd about investing with an eye toward keeping taxes low. A small example: As Bloomberg News pointed out in March, tax savings are one reason Buffett says he prefers to buy companies outright when he can, instead of simply holding stock.

Second, while this is a story that’s very much developing, it is not clear that the Burger King/Tim Horton’s deal is mainly about lowering taxes. As MONEY’s Paul Lim argued yesterday, it may have more to do with diversifying Burger King’s portfolio beyond the slow-growing hamburger business. (BK will still pay U.S. taxes on its U.S. earnings. Though, as Reuters explains, locating in Canada now could eventually become more valuable if the company expands abroad.)

But mainly, suggestions of hypocrisy ring false because Buffett has never, ever held himself out as person who pays more taxes than he has to. The whole point of his story about his tax rate vs. his secretary’s is that he was allowed to pay less than he thought he should. He never said he was writing a check to the Treasury to make up the difference. He just said the law didn’t make any sense, and then he actively he supported a change that would presumably cost him money.

Also, if we had a Buffett rule that captured more of the income of high earners, complex corporate deals that cut taxes would actually be a little less worrying. After all, the ultimate beneficiaries of inversions and the like are the shareholders of companies. And that means it’s wealthy households who get the biggest bang for the tax-saving buck when a U.S. company heads abroad.

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