In 2004 my hometown lost its largest employer to corporate greed. I was a young reporter for the local newspaper, The Register-Mail, when Maytag closed its doors in 2004, forcing roughly 1,600 workers in Galesburg, Illinois and surrounding towns out of their jobs. Most hurtful to the community was the factory’s reason for shutting down: Maytag moved to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor.
Galesburg has never been the same and a lot of people there are still struggling financially and they feel betrayed by the broken promise of the American Dream.
Now I see a similar trend happening in the medical device industry. When I learned a couple weeks ago that Medtronic plans to buy Covidien, a decision largely driven by the desire to lower its tax burden, I got the same sick-to-the-stomach feeling I had 10 years ago when I listened to dozens of scared factory workers talk about their uncertain future.
Medtronic buying Ireland-based Covidien will take options off the table for young companies struggling to bring new products to market. The med-tech giant has tried to prove its loyalty to the U.S market by promising to invest $10 billion over the next 10 years through early stage VC investments, acquisitions, and R&D in the U.S. but that has done little to convince critics that the company has the U.S. economy’s best interests at heart.
Sure, this grand scheme to save on corporate taxes will actually generate a ton of other U.S. taxes, but Medtronic’s shareholders will have to foot that bill. That’s because when stock holders exchange their Medtronic shares for shares in the “new” Ireland-based Medtronic, it will be treated like a sale.
There are some bright sides to the proposed merger, such as increased scale in the face of hospital and payer consolidation in the U.S. and portfolio breadth, which is increasingly important in this post-Affordable Care Act environment.
And Medtronic’s executives have tried to sugarcoat the deal as a business strategy rather than tax inversion. I don’t disagree that there are strategic benefits to be realized. But if that was truly the driving force behind this $42.9 billion mega-deal, why is the agreement contingent on there being no new laws or regulatory actions passed that would make such inversion deals illegal or prevent Medtronic from capitalizing on Covidien’s lower tax rate?
Lee Schafer, a business columnist at the Star Tribune, a Minneapolis-based newspaper, has covered the deal from a few different angles. I imagine Schafer, being based in Medtronic’s backyard (or maybe it’s the other way around), has witnessed a similar state of dejection that I witnessed 10 years ago in the struggling, Midwestern factory town where I grew up.
Schafer hinted at those boiling emotions in a recent column in which he tried to offer the story from the company’s point of view. “But it seems clear that [Medtronic] underestimated just how mad individual shareholders would get once they learned they faced a capital-gains tax from the transaction and perhaps how many folks in our community felt betrayed that one of ours was leaving for tax reasons.”