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How on a Mindblowing Scale

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There’s plenty that doesn’t add up about Pfizer’s claim that the low Irish tax rates it will pay by merging with Allergan are necessary if the company is to fund drug research to stay competitive. Consider that while the pharmaceutical giant was provisioning $2.2 billion for income taxes over the first nine months of this year, it was distributing five times as much – $11.4 billion – to its shareholders, $6.2 billion in stock buybacks and $5.2 billion in dividends. That was 159 percent of its profits over these three quarters.

And for Pfizer such mind-numbing distributions to shareholders are nothing new. The company has been piling stock buybacks on top of dividends since 1985. From January 2001 through September 2015, Pfizer paid out $95.5 billion in buybacks and $87.1 billion in dividends, representing 117 percent of its net income. Meanwhile, it booked $37.1 billion in corporate income taxes to the IRS.

Yet in a Wall Street Journal interview in October, to forestall the public criticism of corporate flight that was bound to come with the upcoming Pfizer-Allergan merger announcement, Pfizer CEO Ian C. Read moaned that its U.S. tax bill puts the company at a “tremendous disadvantage” in global competition. “We’re fighting,” Read said in the interview, “with one hand tied behind our back.” When one looks at Pfizer’s gargantuan distributions to shareholders, however, it is obvious that if Read can’t make use of both hands to secure innovation finance, it is not Uncle Sam who tied the knot.

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