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Drug companies using tax windfall to benefit shareholders, not patients

With New Tax Savings, Drug Companies Start by Rewarding Shareholders, Not Patients Struggling with Skyrocketing Prices

The Office of U.S. Senator Cory A. Booker, April 9, 2018
 
In December 2017, President Trump and the Republican-led Congress enacted the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a $1.5 trillion bill that delivers massive tax cuts to the nation’s largest corporations and wealthiest families. The legislation cuts the corporate tax rate permanently from 35 percent to 21 percent, repeals the corporate alternative minimum tax, moves toward a territorial tax system that largely exempts future foreign profits from taxation, and sets a 15.5 percent repatriation rate for cash held overseas.

In anticipation of tax savings, companies have responded mainly by forecasting significant benefits for their shareholders. Over the course of three months, public companies announced more than $200 billion in stock buybacks, doubling the pace of the previous year. All told, companies are expected to spend some $450 billion of their tax savings on stock buybacks. A recent Morgan Stanley survey further projects that 43 percent of companies’ savings from the new tax law will be devoted to buying back stock and issuing dividends, actions that help companies and their predominantly wealthy shareholders.

The nation’s largest drug companies in particular are poised to reap tremendous gains from the new tax law, including through lower effective tax rates and through repatriation of billions of dollars stored overseas. The critical question that this report endeavors to answer is: how will pharmaceutical companies spend this tax windfall?

Findings: So Far, Drug Companies Are Passing Tax Savings Along to Shareholders, and Are Not Using That Money To Help Working Families Afford Medications

From January to March 2018, the office of Senator Booker reviewed the quarterly shareholder calls the first since the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of each of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies headquartered in the United States.

Finding 1: Shareholder Payouts

On the fourth-quarter 2017 earnings calls, the companies highlighted plans to increase the return of capital to shareholders through share repurchases and corporate dividends. Pfizer and Merck each announced $10 billion in buybacks shortly before the tax law was passed, and, in the wake of the law’s final passage, AbbVie and Amgen each announced their own $10 billion buyback plans. Those four programs, at $10 billion apiece, are among the largest new buyback plans across the entire U.S. economy. Only five other companies (Cisco, Wells Fargo, Home Depot, PepsiCo, and Oracle) have revealed larger new buyback authorizations during this period. Another pharmaceutical company, Celgene, has announced a $5 billion  buyback plan that is also among the largest so far across all industries. Other pharmaceutical companies suggested that more buyback plans were forthcoming.

The recent buyback announcements by these pharmaceutical companies total $45 billion — 21 percent of the more than $200 billion in buyback announcements made over the initial three months during and after final passage of the tax law. In other words: just five pharmaceutical companies were responsible for about one-fifth of the value of all the new buyback announcements made across the economy.

Finding 2: Drug Price Changes

None of the reviewed pharmaceutical companies announced or forecast lowering prescription drug  prices as a result of anticipated tax savings. Instead, some companies discussed pricing concerns at a general level during their earning calls, expressed caution about providing specific pricing guidance, or acknowledged that patients struggle with affordability. None indicated that the massive tax windfall would  prompt them to lower prices and ease the heavy cost burden on patients. In fact, many companies have actually instituted drug price increases for 2018.

Finding 3: Other Projects

On their most recent quarterly shareholder calls, many of the top pharmaceutical companies highlighted the substantial benefits they have received, and will receive, from the new tax legislation. They detailed their plans for spending those savings with varying degrees of specificity. Stock buybacks, as noted, were a major focus of many companies. But they also announced various other projects, including capital investments, research and development, one-time benefits to workers, charitable contributions, and  business development. Still, for many of the announcements, it is unclear how much of the outlays are actually attributable to the tax cuts, and how much would have been spent independent of the tax cuts.

From the Conclusion

Recent earnings calls provided top drug companies their first significant opportunity to demonstrate how they would spend their windfall from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. So far, the influx of tax benefits from the new law has been associated mainly with a slew of stock buyback announcements — with $45 billion in new buyback programs by just five pharmaceutical companies. They are some of the largest buyback plans announced during this initial period across all industries, amounting to approximately one-fifth of the cumulative economy-wide total. Aside from stock buybacks, which predominantly benefit executives and company shareholders, some pharmaceutical companies did announce other initiatives that could help  patients and workers, such as expansions of research and development, employee pay and benefit support, capital projects, and charitable contributions.

On the earnings calls, while some pharmaceutical companies did acknowledge that many patients struggle to afford the high prices of essential prescription medications, no company announced plans to specifically use its tax savings to reduce drug prices.

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

The tax reductions enacted last December went primarily to the wealthy and their corporations. Since there has been considerable concern about the increase in drug prices that have made them unaffordable for far too many patients, it was hoped that the pharmaceutical industry would pass some of their tax windfall down to patients in the form of lower drug prices.

No. They spent much of the windfall on buying back stocks and issuing dividends, benefiting their wealthy shareholders. "None indicated that the massive tax windfall would  prompt them to lower prices and ease the heavy cost burden on patients. In fact, many companies have actually instituted drug price increases for 2018."

This should come as no surprise since Congress and the President, as an ideological goal, have been striving to reduce public funding of health care benefits. It seems that the politicians in control and their wealthy benefactors do not care about the health of the people nearly as much as they care about further increasing the wealth of those already wealthy.

It's about policy, but we won't get it right until we fix the politics.

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