GE, Exxon Paid No U.S. Income Taxes in '09
As you work on your taxes this month, here's something to raise your hackles: Some of the world's biggest, most profitable corporations enjoy a far lower tax rate than you do--that is, if they pay taxes at all.
A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas September 15, 2008. None of ExxonMobil's income taxes were paid to the U.S. last year.
The most egregious example is General Electric. Last year the conglomerate generated $10.3 billion in pretax income, but ended up owing nothing to Uncle Sam. In fact, it recorded a tax benefit of $1.1 billion.
Avoiding taxes is nothing new for General Electric. In 2008 its effective tax rate was 5.3%; in 2007 it was 15%. The marginal U.S. corporate rate is 35%.
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How did this happen? It's complicated. GE's tax return is the largest the IRS deals with each year--some 24,000 pages if printed out. Its annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission weighs in at more than 700 pages.
Inside you'll find that GE in effect consists of two divisions: General Electric Capital and everything else. The everything else--maker of engines, power plants, TV shows and the like--would have paid a 22% tax rate if it was a standalone company.
It's GE Capital that keeps the overall tax bill so low. Over the last two years, GE Capital has displayed an uncanny ability to lose lots of money in the U.S. (posting a $6.5 billion loss in 2009), and make lots of money overseas (a $4.3 billion gain). Not only do the U.S. losses balance out the overseas gains, but GE can defer taxes on that overseas income indefinitely. The timing of big deductions for depreciation in GE Capital's equipment leasing business also provides a tax benefit, as will loan losses left over from the credit crunch.
But it's the tax benefit of overseas operations that is the biggest reason why multinationals end up with lower tax rates than the rest of us. It only makes sense that multinationals "put costs in high-tax countries and profits in low-tax countries," says Scott Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation. Those low-tax countries are almost anywhere but the U.S. "When you add in state taxes, the U.S. has the highest tax burden among industrialized countries," says Hodge. In contrast, China's rate is just 25%; Ireland's is 12.5%.
Corporations are getting smarter, not just about doing more business in low-tax countries, but in moving their more valuable assets there as well. That means setting up overseas subsidiaries, then transferring to them ownership of long-lived, often intangible but highly profitable assets, like patents and software.
As a result, figures tax economist Martin Sullivan, companies are keeping some $28 billion a year out of the clutches of the U.S. Treasury by engaging in so-called transfer pricing arrangements, where, say, Microsoft's overseas subsidiaries license software to its U.S. parent company in return for handsome royalties (that get taxed at those lower overseas rates).
"Corporations are paying lower amounts of their profits in taxes now than in the past," says Douglas Shackelford, who teaches tax law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Other countries have been lowering their rates, but not the U.S."
Mind you, not all global megacorps enjoy such low tax rates. Try to muster some pity for Big Oil. ExxonMobil paid more income taxes than any other U.S. company last year, some $15 billion, or 47% of pretax earnings. Exxon's peers Chevron and ConocoPhillips likewise paid out more than half their earnings in income taxes. The oil companies are oddities among the multinationals because many of the oil-rich countries where they do business levy even higher taxes than the U.S.
Exxon tries to limit the tax pain with the help of 20 wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that (legally) shelter the cash flow from operations in the likes of Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. No wonder that of $15 billion in income taxes last year, Exxon paid none of it to Uncle Sam, and has tens of billions in earnings permanently reinvested overseas.
Likewise, GE has $84 billion in overseas income parked indefinitely outside the U.S.
Naturally the Obama administration wants to put an end to this. It has proposed doing away with tax deferrals on overseas income. If the plan passes, a U.S. company that pays a 25% tax on profits in China would have to pay an additional 10% income tax to Uncle Sam to bring it up to the 35% corporate rate. "Eliminating deferrals would put U.S. companies on an unlevel playing field," says the Tax Foundation's Hodge, "especially if competing with the likes of Germany, which only taxes companies on domestic operations."
Hewlett-Packard and others among the top 25 state in their annual reports that if Obama's tax measures pass it would mean a certain tax hike, probably amounting to billions of dollars.
Would no more tax holiday for GE really end up helping Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer? Doubtful. "The average Joe should be in favor of lower corporate taxes," says Hodge, "because ultimately they are paying the corporate income tax. Either as workers, getting lower wages and fewer jobs, or as consumers, paying higher prices, or as retirees, getting lower dividends and earnings on their investments."
In the same vein, JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has spoken out against an Obama proposal to levy a special tax on banks to recoup bailout costs. "Using tax policy to punish people is a bad idea," said Dimon. "All businesses tend to pass costs on to customers."