Tag Archives: corporate taxes

It Isn’t Just Tax Rates

A new study has found that at least 55 of America’s largest companies paid zero taxes last year, despite making billions of dollars in profits. It’s infuriating.

As the New York Times reports, that 2017 tax bill eagerly passed by Republicans in Congress and signed with great fanfare by the former guy, reduced the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent. On top of that gift,

dozens of Fortune 500 companies were able to further shrink their tax bill — sometimes to zero — thanks to a range of legal deductions and exemptions that have become staples of the tax code, according to the analysis…

Twenty-six of the companies listed, including FedEx, Duke Energy and Nike, were able to avoid paying any federal income tax for the last three years even though they reported a combined income of $77 billion. Many also received millions of dollars in tax rebates.

As Bernie Sanders has reportedly noted, if you paid 135 for a pair of Nike shoes, you paid more for them than Nike paid in taxes.

The Times article has a list of the most profitable companies that paid no taxes last year.

Publicly traded corporations have to file financial reports, and those reports include the amounts they’ve paid in federal income taxes. When challenged about their ability to avoid paying taxes, most respond that they “fully comply” with the laws. Which is undoubtedly true. (Okay, maybe not for those with accounts in offshore tax havens…Although that tactic is more common among filthy rich individuals than corporations…)

It’s relatively simply to “fully comply” with tax provisions (aka “loopholes”) that are  intended to encourage socially useful behaviors like investing in clean energy or modernizing aging equipment.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, passed last year to help businesses and families survive the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, included a provision that temporarily allowed businesses to use losses in 2020 to offset profits earned in previous years, according to the institute.

Several of these deductions and credits are justifiable. Others, much less so.

I agree with Elizabeth Warren, who has been quoted as saying that giant corporations with billions of dollars of profit shouldn’t be able to pay $0 in federal taxes. According to the Times, today’s tax avoidance strategies include a mix of old standards and what the report calls “new innovations”. It’s hard to argue, for example, for the social benefit of allowing companies to save billions of dollars by characterizing the purchase of discounted stock options by their top executives as a loss, which they then deduct.

The Biden administration announced this week that it planned to increase the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, and establish a kind of minimum tax that would limit the number of zero-payers. The White House estimated that the revisions would raise $2 trillion over 15 years, which will be used to fund the president’s ambitious infrastructure plan.

Supporters say that in addition to yielding revenue, the rewrite would help make the tax code more equitable, requiring individuals and companies at the top of the income ladder to pay more. But Republicans have signaled that the tax increases in the Biden proposal — which Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, called “massive” — will preclude bipartisan support.

Individual taxpayers have long had to contend with the Alternative Minimum Tax. That provision was created in the 1960s, with the goal of preventing high-income taxpayers from using various deductions and credits to avoid the individual income tax. There’s no reason why a similar mechanism shouldn’t apply to corporate giants using provisions of the tax code to avoid paying any taxes on massive profits.

Meanwhile, It would be illuminating if a Congressional committee were to examine the credits and deductions allowed by the current tax code, and eliminate those that no longer make much sense. (Some never did.)

If nothing else, it would be interesting to see how the Republican supporters of these provisions would defend them.

 

 

 

That Terrible Corporate Tax Burden

One of the reasons I became a faithful reader of Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars is that he disdains the euphemisms that “polite” commentators use to convey their criticisms, and simply tells it like it is. A good example is a recent post about the “confusion”–or deliberate obfuscation–surrounding discussions of corporate tax rates.

As he began,

Republicans love to claim that America’s corporate taxes are the highest in the developed world. This is a lie. The marginal tax rates, up to 35%, are among the highest. The actual rates paid are a fraction of that. In fact, some of the most profitable companies in the world pay no federal taxes at all.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy used the tax information filed by  258 profitable Fortune 500 companies to analyze what those corporations actually paid. The companies chosen for the analysis collectively earned more than $3.8 trillion in profits over the eight-year period of the analysis.

Although the top corporate rate is 35 percent, the study found that 100 of the companies  — nearly 40 percent — paid zero taxes in at least one year between 2008 and 2015.

Eighteen, including General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com and PG&E, incurred a total federal income tax bill of less than zero over the entire eight-year period — meaning they received rebates.

This result was entirely legal. The companies simply took advantage of numerous loopholes in the tax code. Some, including American Electric Power, Con Ed and Comcast, qualified for accelerated depreciation. That allowed them to write off most of the costs of  new equipment and machinery well before it wore out–or in “tax speak,” well before before the end of its “useful life.”

Facebook, Aetna and Exxon Mobil, among others, saved billions in taxes by giving options to top executives to buy stock in the future at a discount. The companies then get to deduct their huge payouts as a loss. Facebook used excess tax benefits from stock options to reduce its federal and state taxes by $5.78 billion from 2010 to 2015, the institute found.

As Ed reminds us, “In the 1950s, corporate taxes were about one-third of all federal revenue; today, it’s under 10%. And the burden is then transferred to individual taxpayers.”

Conservative economists will remind us that ultimately, individual consumers will pay corporate taxes–that the taxes companies pay will be factored into the prices of the goods they sell. And that is absolutely true. But it is a far fairer and much more honest way to do business.

The prices of consumer goods should reflect the actual cost of producing them, and taxes are–or should be– part of that cost. We don’t want the manufacturer who is “disposing” of his waste illegally to be able to undercut the prices of the guy who is following the rules, and we don’t want companies with more “creative” tax avoidance strategies to undercut competitors who are paying their fair share . Capitalist markets only work properly when pricing is honest.

Our current system doesn’t reward innovation; it rewards “game playing.” Lobbyists sneak arcane loopholes into our increasingly complicated tax code. Those loopholes further tilt the playing field, distorting market forces in ways that favor the companies that  can afford the lobbyists.

I’m all in favor of lowering the top marginal corporate tax rate, if we get rid of the loopholes at the same time. (We should start with those that provide an incentive for moving American businesses to off-shore tax havens–but we shouldn’t stop there.)

The current system allows corporations to whine about the tax rate in public, while making out like bandits behind the scenes. It’s dishonest, it’s anti-competitive, and it shifts the tax burden in ways that are unfair to individual taxpayers and a drag on the economy.

A responsible Congress would eliminate or dramatically reduce the loopholes and readjust the tax burden. Our Congress, however, is too busy making the system worse.

I Guess It Isn’t the Money….

Dispatches from the Culture Wars reports:

“By employing a plethora of tax-dodging techniques, 30 multi-million dollar American corporations expended more money lobbying Congress than they paid in federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010, ultimately spending approximately $400,000 every day — including weekends — during that three-year period to lobby lawmakers and influence political elections, according to a new report from the non-partisan Public Campaign.

Despite a growing federal deficit and the widespread economic stability that has swept the U.S since 2008, the companies in question managed to accumulate profits of $164 billion between 2008 and 2010, while receiving combined tax rebates totaling almost $11 billion. Moreover, Public Campaign reports these companies spent about $476 million during the same period to lobby the U.S. Congress, as well as another $22 million on federal campaigns, while in some instances laying off employees and increasing executive compensation.”

To put these numbers in perspective, these corporations spent three times as much lobbying for preferential treatment as they paid in taxes.