General Electric Co. has disclosed in its annual report for 1982 that tax reform does not have to hurt. GE's net earnings grew to $1.82 billion last year, but the firm got a net tax refund of $146 million.
A year ago, reports that General Electric used corporate tax sale provisions in 1981 to get a net federal tax refund of $90 million to $100 million despite net earnings of $1.65 billion was a critical factor in the decision of Congress to "reform" the controversial law.
Both members of Congress and their constituents complained that a law allowing a hugely profitable company not only to eliminate federal tax liability but to get a tax refund on prior years' payments should not stay on the books.
Under traditional leases, the lessor (GE in this situation) actually owns the equipment and leases it to firms that make use of it, in a fashion very similar to a car rental.
The corporate tax sales provisions, however, permitted a wide spectrum of companies to buy tax breaks from companies that couldn't use them through paper lease transactions. The lessor would not own the equipment, except for tax purposes.
Corporate tax sales soon will be phased out as a result of last year's reform.
GE was a quiet proponent of the drive for reform. The firm, and particularly its General Electric Credit Corp. subsidiary, was in a position to take advantage of what many expected would be a sharp increase in traditional leasing.
In a statement accompanying the annual report, the firm declared: "General Electric continues to believe that traditional leasing must maintain its key role in the drive to make U.S. industry more competitive through productive investments in plant and equipment.
"Leasing represents the free market at its best, with the private sector making the crucial risk-reward evaluations . . . Private-sector decisions made in this fashion are far superior to public-sector infusions of capital to sustain those industries short of capital."
The company argued that the "tax benefits earned by the lessor [General Electric] largely represent tax deferrals, not tax avoidance."
Even before the reforms of corporate tax sales took effect, GE Credit Corp. effectively abandoned the deals and returned to traditional leasing, the pratice it heavily engaged in before 1981.
In terms of tax benefits, however, the return has been highly successful. In 1980, when net earnings were $1.51 billion, the company had to pay $330 million in taxes compared with the net refund of $146 million this year. This amounts to a $476 million tax reduction over a two-year period when earnings have grown $310 million.
All this bonanza in tax breaks, however, soon is to create a significant problem for the company: It is about to run out of prior-year taxes paid against which to collect refunds.
The law allows tax credits and depreciation to be carried back for refunds only for three years. The last year the firm paid a significant amount of federal tax--$330 million--was in 1980, and the part of the tax refund to be collected this year will be counted against that.
John F. McCoy, the manager of GE's tax accounting operation, declined to say how much of this year's refund will count against 1980 and how much against 1979 payments, but he acknowledged that the company will have to make some changes in either its leasing practices or in its tax situation soon if leasing is to retain its worth to the company.
Other tax experts said GE faces two probable choices in the near future: either cut back on leasing to the point where the tax breaks can be taken against the rest of the company's tax liability, or buy a company that has significant tax liabilities so that it will be able to write off the taxes owed by the acquired company against leasing tax breaks.