By Kevin Drawbaugh and Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Moving against tax avoidance by corporations, the Obama administration took several actions on Monday to curb "inversion" deals that allow companies to escape high U.S. taxes by reincorporating abroad.
The Treasury Department announced new rules, effective immediately, that will reduce the tax benefits available to companies that have inverted, while also making new inversions more difficult to do and less potentially rewarding.
Because they took effect on Monday, the new rules might raise issues for some of a handful of companies that have agreed to do inversions, but have not yet completed them.
Fast-food chain Burger King Worldwide Inc is in the midst of inverting to Canada in a deal with coffee-and-donuts vendor Tim Hortons Inc. A spokeswoman for Burger King said the company declined to comment.
Asked about the impact on pending deals, a senior Treasury official told reporters on a conference call: "If they are closed and done as of today, then they are not subject to this. If they are closed tomorrow or after, they are subject to this."
President Barack Obama, who has sharply criticized inverting companies, said the steps would discourage the deals, seen by some as a threat to the U.S. corporate income tax base.
"We've recently seen a few large corporations announce plans to exploit this loophole, undercutting businesses that act responsibly and leaving the middle class to pay the bill, and I'm glad that (Treasury) Secretary (Jack) Lew is exploring additional actions to help reverse this trend," Obama said in a statement.
The announcement of the rules followed months of growing concern on Capitol Hill, with Democrats urging prompt legislative action and Republicans pushing to address the problem later as part of a broader tax code overhaul.
Companies that do inversions, which are legal and already subject to certain restrictions, say they are only trying to minimize their tax bills, which investors expect.
About 50 such deals have taken place since the early 1980s, but half have been completed since the 2008-2009 credit crisis, according to a Reuters review.
Inversions have surged in the past year, pursued by big companies such as Burger King and medical technology group Medtronic Inc. The deals usually involve a U.S. corporation buying a smaller, foreign rival and redomiciling in its home country, where taxes are lower, even though core operations typically remain in the United States.
Treasury Secretary Lew said in a statement: “These first, targeted steps make substantial progress in constraining the creative techniques used to avoid U.S. taxes, both in terms of meaningfully reducing the economic benefits of inversions after the fact, and when possible, stopping them altogether.”
Steps being taken include preventing inverted companies from gaining easier access to foreign profits using "hopscotch" loans; blocking inverted companies' tax-free access to foreign units' earnings; and tightening limits on ownership by the former U.S. owners of an inverted company, the Treasury said.
Some companies had feared new rules might be imposed retroactively, but they were not.
Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, said the administration "may succeed in chilling the climate for further deals, but this was not as strident as it could have been, especially in that they don’t do anything retroactively.”
(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh, Jason Lange and Emily Stephenson; Editing by Diane Craft, Steve Orlofsky and Andre Grenon)