While all eyes have been on Brexit developments, Ian Guider takes a look at the potential threat to Ireland from President Trump’s US tax plans
This article was first published in the May 2017 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
For the last nine months I’m pretty sure most companies in this country have been considering what impact Brexit will have on their business. It was the obvious issue to focus on given the vast trade links between Ireland and the UK.
Increasingly, though, I’m hearing concerns from various companies, particularly multinational firms and their advisers, about Donald Trump’s economic reform plans, which centre on sweeping changes to corporation and income taxes, and the possible imposition of a border adjustment tax.
Every US president in living memory has tried to reform America’s unusually high corporate tax rate. What makes the impending battle for reform different is the campaign promises that Trump made about actually doing it and going beyond what others had promised. The businessman-turned-president is probably the only person who has the will to ram home this type of policy, even more so in the light of his failure to get his healthcare plans over the line. He claims to be the ultimate dealmaker, and revamping the tax code is the ultimate deal that has eluded his predecessors.
It’s a prize worth spending his political capital on, but the scope of Trump’s agenda must be a concern for Ireland.
The credit ratings agency Fitch released a report on the risks for other countries as a result of what Trump is considering. Its conclusions are worth taking a bit of time to detail. If the Trump plans were implemented in full it could, Fitch says, ‘worsen current account balances and GDP growth for major exporters to the US, reduce FDI [foreign direct investment] inflows, and lead to a loss of tax revenues for countries that host US multinationals’.
The border adjustment tax would be ‘at the expense of other countries. Luxembourg, Ireland, Netherlands and Singapore in particular could see outflows of FDI and US operations, with potential adverse implications for public finances and GDP,’ the report adds.
Ireland clearly has a lot to lose given the scale of US investment here. There are outcomes that are just about OK, and some that could be very painful.
Senior tax advisers tell me that a one-off repatriation of profits held offshore is likely. That is something which is both understandable and the least damaging. It is absurd that Apple, for example, keeps hundreds of billions of dollars of cash offshore. Shareholders would surely like to see that money in their pockets.
Reducing US corporation tax to about 20% from its current 35% would be manageable for Ireland. Tax is not Ireland’s selling point any more.
But what is rattling nerves here is the border tax and the signal that sends to companies that want to make future investment decisions. Making America great again will come at someone’s expense. There is very little risk to the FDI already here, but what does a CEO who is planning to send another pharma plant or office to Ireland or elsewhere do when faced with a punitive response?
And there is no hiding place for Ireland. Since his campaign days, Trump has singled the country out, despite the bonhomie between the president and Enda Kenny in Washington in March.
A best case scenario is that a compromise emerges whereby a one-off repatriation and a cut to the US corporation tax rate are the outcomes. That would suit Ireland. What is not needed is a standoff in the US that prompts companies to postpone or cancel investment decisions.
Who would have thought Brexit, by contrast, would be easier to plan for?
Ian Guider is markets editor at the Sunday Business Post