The Real Tax Benefits of Inverting to Canada

by Bilzin Sumberg
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On August 26, Burger King announced that it entered into an agreement to acquire Tim Hortons, Inc., the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain, in a transaction that will be structured as an “inversion” (i.e., Burger King will become a subsidiary of a Canadian parent corporation).  The deal is expected to close in 2014 or 2015. The agreement values Tim Hortons at approximately $11 billion, which represents a 30 percent premium over Tim Hortons’ August 22 closing stock price.

Under the terms of the deal, Tim Hortons shareholders will receive a combination of cash and common shares in the new company. Each common share of Burger King will be converted into 0.99 of a share of the new parent company and 0.01 of a unit of a newly formed, Ontario-based limited partnership controlled by the new parent company. Holders of shares of Burger King common stock, however, will be given the right to elect to receive only partnership units in lieu of common shares of the new parent company, subject to a limit on the maximum number of partnership units issued. Burger King shareholders who make this election will be able to defer paying tax on the built-in gain in their Burger King shares until the partnership units are sold. 3G Capital, Burger King’s principal shareholder, has elected to receive only partnership units. 3G will own approximately 51 percent of the new Burger King-Tim Hortons company, with current public shareholders of Burger King and Tim Hortons receiving 27 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

Inversions have gotten plenty of negative publicity during the past few years. Most of the reported deals involve U.S. companies that have acquired smaller foreign companies in low tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Switzerland, and the U.K. As with any inversion transaction, the U.S. company will continue to be subject to U.S. federal income tax on its worldwide income.  The U.S. company will benefit, however, from the ability to: (i) reorganize its controlled foreign subsidiaries under a new foreign parent corporation (thereby removing those subsidiaries from the U.S. “controlled foreign corporation” regime and also allowing for the future repatriation of non-U.S. source profits to the foreign parent corporation and avoid U.S. corporate income tax); and (ii) “base erode” the U.S. company with intercompany debt and/or license arrangements with the new foreign parent or its non-U.S. subsidiaries.

It has been reported that Burger King’s effective tax rate was 27.5 percent in 2013 and Tim Hortons was 26.8 percent (15 percent federal rate plus 11.8 percent provincial rate), so “base eroding” Burger King with deductible interest and/or royalty payments to Canada will not provide a significant tax benefit to Burger King.  Where the use of a Canadian parent corporation, however, will benefit Burger King (and other U.S. companies that have inverted into Canada) from a tax perspective is the ability to take advantage of Canada’s (i) “exempt surplus” regime, which allows for the repatriation of dividends from foreign subsidiaries into Canada on a tax-free basis; and (ii) income tax treaties that contain tax sparing provisions, granting foreign tax credits at rates higher than the actual foreign taxes paid. The United States does not provide either of these tax benefits under its corporate income tax system or treaty network. 

Canadian Exempt Surplus Regime

In general, under Canadian law, dividends received by a Canadian corporation out of the “exempt surplus” of a foreign subsidiary are not subject to corporate income tax in Canada. Exempt surplus includes earnings of a foreign subsidiary that is resident in, and carrying on an active business in, a country with which Canada has concluded an income tax treaty or, more recently, a tax information exchange agreement (TIEA). A TIEA is an agreement between two jurisdictions pursuant to which the jurisdictions may request and share certain information that is relevant to the determination, assessment and collection of taxes, the recovery and enforcement of tax claims, and the investigation or prosecution of tax matters.  The extension of the exempt surplus regime to jurisdictions that have signed TIEAs (but not income tax treaties) with Canada is significant because Canada has signed such agreements with low-tax jurisdictions, such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. Historically, the use of a Barbados IBC, which has a maximum corporate income tax rate of 2.5 percent, was the preferred jurisdiction for a Canadian parent company operating in a low-tax jurisdiction because of the long standing Canada-Barbados income tax treaty.

On the other hand, dividends received by a Canadian corporation out of the “taxable surplus” of a foreign subsidiary will be taxable in Canada (subject to a grossed-up deduction for foreign taxes) at regular corporate income tax rates. Taxable surplus includes most types of passive income, such as royalties, interest, etc., and active business income of a foreign subsidiary that is resident in, or carrying on business in, a country with which Canada has neither an income tax treaty nor a TIEA.  Special rules may deem certain passive income (such as interest or royalties) to be included in exempt surplus if received by a foreign subsidiary resident in a tax treaty or TIEA jurisdiction, if those amounts are deductible in computing the exempt earnings of another foreign subsidiary. For example, interest and royalties paid from an active business of a U.K. subsidiary of a Canadian parent corporation to a Cayman Islands subsidiary of such Canadian parent will be eligible to be repatriated to Canada from the Cayman Islands under the exempt surplus regime on a tax-free basis.

It is interesting to note, however, that Burger King will not be able to repatriate most of its foreign-source income to Canada on a tax-free basis under the exempt surplus rules. The majority of Burger King’s foreign-source income consists of royalties and franchise fees, which will be considered passive income for Canadian income tax purposes. (Burger King, which operates in about 14,000 locations in nearly 100 countries, has become a franchiser that collects royalty fees from its franchisees, not an operator of restaurants).

Canada’s Tax Sparing Provisions

Another tax benefit offered by a Canadian parent corporation is the ability to utilize the “tax sparing” provisions contained in many Canadian income tax treaties. Canada currently has income tax treaties that contain tax sparing provisions with more than 30 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Israel, Singapore, and Spain. In general, the purpose of a tax sparing provision is to preserve certain tax incentives granted by a developing jurisdiction by requiring the other jurisdiction to give a foreign tax credit for the taxes that would have been paid to the developing country had the tax incentive not been granted. For example, under Article 22 of the Canada-Brazil income tax treaty, dividends paid by a Brazilian company to a Canadian parent corporation are deemed to have been subject to a 25 percent withholding tax in Brazil and therefore, eligible for a 25 percent foreign tax credit in Canada, even though the treaty limits the withholding tax to 15 percent (and in actuality, Brazil does not even impose withholding taxes on dividends under its local law). A similar benefit is available for interest and royalties paid from Brazil to Canada (e.g., a deemed withholding tax, and therefore foreign tax credit, of 20 percent, even though the treaty caps the withholding tax at 15 percent). As noted above, the United States does not currently have any income tax treaties that contain tax sparing provisions.

Conclusion

With Burger King’s effective corporate tax rate of 27.5 percent in the United States in 2013 and Tim Hortons 26.8 percent in Canada, the tax benefits of Burger King inverting to Canada are not readily apparent. Notwithstanding the lack of a significant disparity in these tax rates, Canada does offer the ability to exclude from its corporate income tax dividends received from the earnings of a foreign subsidiary that is resident in, and carrying on an active business in, a jurisdiction that has concluded an income tax treaty or TIEA with Canada. This key benefit, along with the Canadian income tax treaties that contain tax sparing provisions, provides one more example of why U.S. multinationals are operating at a competitive disadvantage when compared to other OECD countries around the world.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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