If you’re waiting for President Obama to pull a Walgreen (NYSE:WAG) on Burger King (NYSE:BKW), you’re probably one pickle short of a whopper. Because it ain’t happening.
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By now you’ve heard that Burger King has just scooped up Canadian coffee-and-doughnut giant Tim Hortons in a roughly $11 billion deal, and will move its headquarters there. BK’s CEO insists the deal won’t save much on taxes – the company presently pays an adjusted tax rate of about 27%, which is about the prevailing tax rate in Canada. Others dispute that math, since Canada provides many more tax incentives and loopholes that allow acquiring companies to take advantage of much lower rates.
But that isn’t the issue. The Sage is. Warren Buffett is. Arguably the greatest investor of all time is. The man many simply call the Oracle of Omaha is. And it’s his participation in this unusual transaction that will likely stifle the predictable White House reaction. That’s because Buffett’s a friend of Barack’s, as in Barack Obama. And more, he’s a supporter of the rich paying more taxes, which aligns Buffett perfectly with a central premise of Barack Obama’s – that the rich should pay more taxes.
Just not in this particular case. Because the way Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway’s $3 billion stake in this Burger King-Hortons combo works is he profits from the friendlier tax environment in Canada as well. He’s also getting $50 million to compensate for any extra taxes he might be looking at in the meantime.
None of this is illegal, and Buffett’s people insist taxes had nothing to do with the billionaire investor’s interest in this food combo. Still, say what you will of Burger King’s purchase and its CEO’s insistence it’s an even tax swap, the burger giant IS moving its headquarters from Miami to Canada, and while its franchisees in the U.S. still will pay prevailing taxes in the U.S, this deal isn’t any less a tax inversion. And that’s despite Burger King fielding lots of angry email and messages from customers, it’s using this tactic on its Facebook page in an attempt to calm its critics, “We hear you. We’re not moving, we’re just growing and finding ways to serve you better.”
Just try telling that to Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who said he was “disappointed in Burger King’s decision to renounce their American citizenship.”
“With every new corporate inversion,” Durbin continued, “the tax burden increases on the rest of us to pay what these corporations don’t.”
If the argument sounds familiar, it should. It was much the same pitch politicians made when Walgreen was ultimately shamed into staying in the U.S. and not jumping overseas to presumably escape higher taxes here. It’s hard to say, this much is not – the president made a big issue of companies that use this perfectly legal maneuver to ease their tax burden here.
His argument was and remains, inversions are perversions. They’re bad. They’re dangerous. And they leave U.S. taxpayers filling the void. Then along comes “Mr. Buffett Rule” to change the rules. The man who has long argued for a tax plan that would apply a minimum rate of 30% on folks making more than a million dollars is now backing a deal that conceivably shields him from having to fork over millions of dollars in taxes.
It will be interesting to see how the president plays this, and whether he ultimately trades his friendship with a billionaire to take another jab at billionaires. Many argue Buffett will explain, as Burger King has already explained, that this isn’t so much a tax inversions as a pretty even tax swap. Again, it’s in the eye of the accounting beholder. But most suspect the Sage will get a pass, because the president badly needs him in his corner.
The problem is none of this passes the Washington smell test. The Senate continues inching along with a plan to make all inversions illegal, but does that mean making an exception for deals like Burger King and Tim Hortons? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time some very prominent Democrats have looked the other way. Remember when the White House was blasting all those American companies “shipping jobs overseas,” but said nothing of party-darling Apple, manufacturing more than 100 million new iPhones in Asia?
As Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray recently told me, “there are two sets of rules for this president when it comes to how he treats companies.”
“There are those companies he likes, and there are those companies he doesn’t like.”
Murray is convinced the White House is no fan of coal firms, and the latest EPA orders, dictating sweeping regulations that will likely lift coal-powered-utility rates by upwards of 40%, prove it. “I dare you to find anything approaching this kind of targeting among his wind and solar friends,” Murray adds. “You won’t.”
For consistency then, it would seem obvious the President has to say “something” about this burger-doughnut pairing. Let’s just say, don’t be on it. Because there are inversions that are worth kicking some buns, and others, maybe like this one, that end up all but buttering them.