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Some companies pay their CEOs more than Uncle Sam, study says

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It has become a bipartisan article of faith in some quarters that the income tax on U.S. corporations must be lowered.

But for many large U.S. companies, the burden of U.S. taxation pales in comparison with what they pay their chief executives, according to a study released Wednesday by the Institute of Policy Studies, a liberal think tank.

Of last year’s 100 highest-paid corporate executives in the United States, 25 earned more in pay than their company recorded as a tax expense in 2010.

Those 25 firms reported average global profits of $1.9 billion. Among the 25 were Verizon, Bank of New York Mellon, General Electric, Boeing and eBay.

“These individual CEOs are being rewarded for presiding over companies that dodge taxes,” said Chuck Collins, one of the study’s co-authors and a senior scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies. Eighteen of the 25 firms last year operated subsidiaries in countries that the U.S. Government Accountability Office and other groups have identified as tax havens, one of the report’s authors said.

For example, Bank of New York Mellon paid its chief executive Robert Kelly $19.4 million last year, while the company got $670 million in what amounted to a tax refund, according to the report. The company has 10 subsidiaries in foreign countries, the report said.

Kelly has complained about the high U.S. corporate tax rate in the company’s annual meetings.

A spokesman for the bank offered no comment.

Some companies argued that the institute’s approach — which focused on what the firms recorded as a tax expense within the 2010 calendar year — presented a skewed picture.

Verizon, for instance, saw the equivalent of a $705 million refund in 2010 because it deferred paying taxes on the bulk of its income to future years. The company’s total tax bill from 2010 was about $2.5 billion. The delay in tax payments allowed the firm to make investments in the nation’s technology infrastructure, a company official said.

“Verizon fully complies with all tax laws and pays its fair share of taxes,” its spokesman, Robert A Varettoni, said.

But Scott Klinger, a co-author of the report, said the ability of corporations to push off tax bills is unfair. Ordinary Americans “don’t get to just defer our taxes until next year or 2030 or whenever they come due,” he said.

Klinger said the institute used the current tax expense listed in company 2010 financial statements. But several firms said that number — which is an estimation of tax costs from income generated in 2010 — does not always reflect the actual taxes they paid to the government.

“The IPS study is grossly inaccurate,” eBay said in a statement. “eBay Inc. paid $646 million in taxes in 2010 globally, the majority in the US. IPS has misrepresented our financial reports, and made no attempt to verify the facts with us before publishing inaccurate information.”

Some companies said their taxes were lowered because they invested in research and development or domestic manufacturing, not because they took advantage of overseas tax havens. Other firms, such as Prudential, said it listed a tax benefit of $722 million in its 2010 financial statements because it set aside too much money for taxes in 2009.

Still, institute officials said that a wide array of exemptions allow companies to keep their taxes lower despite the relatively high U.S. corporate income tax rate.

Among its other findings, the institute found that the gap between chief executive compensation and average U.S. worker pay rose from a ratio of 263-to-1 in 2009 to 325-to-1 last year.

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