The tax cut, which Smith lobbied for extensively, was framed as a means of spurring business investment, but FedEx apparently has done the opposite. It spent less on capital investments in 2018 than it did the year before and even less in 2019, according to the Times. Instead, the company has funneled most of those savings back to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
Smith condemned the Times’s report in a Sunday night statement as “factually incorrect” without elaboration and made his unusual demand. He also criticized the Times for paying zero federal income tax in 2017 on earnings of $111 million, and for significantly reducing its own capital investments in 2018.
“I hereby challenge A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, and the business section editor to a public debate in Washington, D.C., with me and the FedEx corporate vice president of tax,” Smith said in a statement. “The focus of the debate should be federal tax policy and the relative societal benefits of business investments and the enormous intended benefits to the United States’ economy, especially lower and middle class wage earners.”
Danielle Rhoades Ha, the Times’s vice president of communications, said Smith’s challenge was “clearly a stunt” and an attempt to distract from the paper’s reporting.
“FedEx’s colorful response does not actually challenge a single fact in our story,” Rhoades Ha said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “We’re confident in the accuracy of our reporting.”
David Vernon, a senior analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein, said the Times’s report was lacking context about FedEx’s level of business investment, as well as the numerous changes to the tax code in 2018 that resulted in the company’s lower rate. He pointed out that FedEx spent $5.6 billion in 2018 and said FedEx was an “interesting company” for the Times to single out, given its strong track record.
“This is a business that has historically invested at a very high rate,” Vernon said. “I think [Smith] feels pretty comfortable with the level his company is investing in.”
In response to the Times’s reporting, FedEx said that it has paid nearly $10 billion in U.S. taxes in the past five fiscal years, and that it had invested billions of dollars in capital items eligible for accelerated depreciation — assets that lose value at a faster rate, which then minimize taxable income — and made major contributions to employee pension plans.
“The decrease in U.S. investment over the past year is due to the slowdown in global trade, which has a significant impact on the asset-intensive industrial economy, including FedEx,” the company said in a statement.
After the 2017 tax cut, U.S. companies unleashed a record-setting $1 trillion of stock buybacks — repurchases by a company of shares it previously sold or issued — in 2018. Buybacks minimize the number of shares on the market, which boost a company’s earnings per share, which in turn helps raise share prices.
A recent Washington Post investigation found that insider stock sales are surprisingly common during buybacks: At least 500 insiders sold during buyback programs at their companies in just one 15-month period in 2017 and 2018, according to The Post’s analysis of data compiled by the SEC, as well as regulatory filings. More than 50 of the insider sellers were chief executives.
A former Marine officer and decorated Vietnam War veteran, Smith founded FedEx in 1971. The concept for the business came from a term paper he wrote at Yale University in 1965, while he was an undergraduate. He originally named the company Federal Express because he thought the patriotic association with the word “federal” suggested “an interest in nationwide economic activity,” according to FedEx’s website. In its first 26 months, the company lost $29 million. Smith famously helped keep his business afloat with money he won at blackjack tables in Las Vegas.
Smith was an early champion of Trump’s tax law, which slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, and said it would allow the company to spend more on hiring, new equipment and technology. Before the law went into effect in January 2018, FedEx predicted it would fuel a $1.3 billion increase in annual profits.
Smith has been CEO for most of FedEx’s history. He had been planning to hand over the reins until his heir apparent abruptly retired in February, the Wall Street Journal reported. The company changed its retirement rules to allow him to stay on as CEO after he turned 75 in August.