Protection by Stealth: Using the Tax Law to Discriminate against Foreign Insurance Companies

Policy Brief
April 2010

The severe economic damage done by the global crisis of 2007-09 has reenergized calls to protect domestic products and producers in the United States. One example is a proposal to discriminate against foreign-owned insurance companies, using the tax code. The Neal bill (HR 3424), named after Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA), proposes to tax foreign-owned insurance companies doing business in the United States more heavily than US-owned insurance companies doing exactly the same business in the United States. If this bill or something like it is enacted, cautions Hufbauer, European countries are almost certain to bring a case against the United States in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and seek redress under US income tax treaties. Some European countries might consider tit-for-tat retaliatory legislation that would hurt US-owned insurance companies.

While legal and retaliatory battles are waged, some foreign-owned insurance companies might reconsider their presence in the US insurance market-a role that has greatly benefited the US households and firms that suffered catastrophic losses in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Equally important, it is a bad idea to deny US nonfinancial companies the benefit of competition between US-owned and foreign-owned firms in an industry that collects hundreds of billions of dollars of premiums annually. Tax abuse in the insurance market, if it exists, can be addressed without discriminating against foreign-owned companies.