You are hereNaked Capitalism: Leader in Tax Evasion, Pays Virtually No Tax Yet Got Bailed Out in Crisis

Naked Capitalism: Leader in Tax Evasion, Pays Virtually No Tax Yet Got Bailed Out in Crisis

March 25, 2011- The New York Times reports tonight on what a great job General Electric does in tax evasion avoidance, reaping a tax credit of $3.2 billion on $5.1 billion of reported US profits. And while GE is a particularly egregious example by virtue of having the most sophisticated tax operation in the US, it illustrates a more general point. The idea that US corporations are heavily or even meaningfully taxed is a canard (and this is true at the small end of the spectrum too). While nominal tax rates may appear to take a serious bite out of corporate earnings, a myriad of loopholes and income-shifting schemes allows companies to slip the taxman’s leash.

And before some of you contend that this line of thinking is somehow anti-capitalist, consider the reaction of President Reagan when learning of GE’s skills in tax dodging:

As it has evolved, the company has used, and in some cases pioneered, aggressive strategies to lower its tax bill. In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan overhauled the tax system after learning that G.E. — a company for which he had once worked as a commercial pitchman — was among dozens of corporations that had used accounting gamesmanship to avoid paying any taxes.

“I didn’t realize things had gotten that far out of line,” Mr. Reagan told the Treasury secretary, Donald T. Regan, according to Mr. Regan’s 1988 memoir. The president supported a change that closed loopholes and required G.E. to pay a far higher effective rate, up to 32.5 percent.

And don’t try contending that it has always been like this. From Richard Wolf in the Guardian (emphasis his):

During the Great Depression, federal income tax receipts from individuals and corporations were roughly equal. During the second world war, income tax receipts from corporations were 50% greater than from individuals. The national crises of depression and war produced successful popular demands for corporations to contribute significant portions of federal tax revenues.

US corporations resented that arrangement, and after the war, they changed it. Corporate profits financed politicians’ campaigns and lobbies to make sure that income tax receipts from individuals rose faster than those from corporations and that tax cuts were larger for corporations than for individuals. By the 1980s, individual income taxes regularly yielded four times more than taxes on corporations’ profits…

Corporations repeated at the state and local levels what they accomplished federally. According to the US Census Bureau, corporations paid taxes on their profits to states and localities totalling $24.7bn in 1988, while individuals then paid income taxes of $90bn. However, by 2009, while corporate tax payments had roughly doubled (to $49.1bn), individual income taxes had more than tripled (to $290bn).

The article describes one of the biggest ruses used by major companies, that of shifting income to lower tax jurisdictions. Nicholas Shaxson, in his book Treasure Islands, discusses how the economic justifications are often thin to non-existant, which the operations in the tax-shelter countries often being skimpy even though the income attributed to them via transfer pricing schemes will be large. This operates to the extent that Africa loses more via tax stripping than it gets back in foreign aid. Consider the pattern at GE:

As the company expanded abroad, the portion of its profits booked in low-tax countries such as Ireland and Singapore grew far faster. From 1996 through 1998, its profits and revenue in the United States were in sync — 73 percent of the company’s total. Over the last three years, though, 46 percent of the company’s revenue was in the United States, but just 18 percent of its profits.



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