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Walgreen's U.S. Fate Could Be Sealed by Labor Day

Stocks in this article: WAG PFE CVS

Inversion Not Guaranteed

If Walgreen's is weighing costs and benefits of a tax-related move abroad, there is reason to believe the company may now have the ability to make the decision it wants.

Pfizer's (PFE - Get Report) recent plan to acquire AstraZeneca (AZN) and shift its headquarters to Britain, and the subsequent outcry in Washington and London, may mean Walgreen's could sneak a similar inversion without the same scrutiny, according to Willens, the tax expert.

Willens said in a telephone interview that when the Alliance Boots deal was first announced he didn't believe an inversion would be possible, given customer and political backlash. Now he's not so sure.

Aside from properly assessing any political fallout, there are practical reasons why an inversion may be complicated.

An inversion would now require a re-working of the transaction so that Alliance Boots is the acquirer of Walgreen's. Furthermore, Walgreen's already owns 45% of Alliance Boots stock, meaning that capital gains on those shares would be taxable if the stake was transferred between parties.

Willens said that an inversion now carries so-called "hook stock" and would break new ground in what is already a widening array of tax-avoiding M&A transactions. Still, if Walgreen's and Alliance Boots have a plan in place to shift a growing percentage of U.S.-based earnings abroad, Willens said the maneuvering may be worth it.

Jana's Plan

An inversion may not turn out to be an absolute must-do move in the eyes of Walgreen's increasingly vocal shareholders. Jana Partners, at a recent activist investing conference, disclosed an range of changes at Walgreen's that it believes can drive value at the company as it completes the Alliance Boots deal.

For instance, a plan to better optimize the front-end of Walgreen's stores where non-pharmacy goods are sold such as beer, deodorant and the like, could help improve the company's margins. Compared with peers, Walgreen's appears to be lagging, with EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) margins about a third lower than its biggest rival, CVS Caremark (CVS - Get Report). Alliance Boots EBIT margins, meanwhile, are roughly double those of Walgreen's.

Synergies in the merger, meanwhile, are forecast to reach $1 billion by 2016, with those estimates possibly on the conservative side.

As with most recent activist investment plays, there also appear ways Walgreen's can better use its balance sheet to return capital to investors through rising share buybacks and dividends.

There are other plans. Alliance Boots is led by Stefano Pessina, an executive who orchestrated the construction of Alliance UniChem Group and merged it with Boots in 2006 The combined company was quickly swooped up by private equity firm KKR in a $22 billion deal at the height of the credit bubble.

Pessina stuck around at Alliance Boots and has helped the company through some lean years in the wake of the crisis. He, according to the terms of the Walgreen's merger, will become the combined company's single largest shareholder. Investors such as Jana, which now holds roughly $1 billion worth of Walgreen's shares, want to see Pessina and his executive team play a significant role in the combined company.

Perhaps the decision to either invert or remain headquartered in the U.S. will be an early read on the extent of change brewing at Walgreen's.

The quiet may not last until Walgreen's files its proxy. Walgreen's has a busy slate of public presentations, including earnings calls and investor conferences. Tax-related issues, in addition to boardroom intrigue, are on the minds of most investors and analysts following the company.

Jana declined to comment. Walgreens did not provide comment beyond its public statements.

Bottom Line: Walgreens may or may not decide to move its headquarters abroad. Regardless, expect some drastic change to the long-time family run company.

>> Read More: Pfizer Can Stay in Dow After British Move

>> Read More: TheStreet's Top 5 Dealmakers

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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