Jim Roumell is president of Roumell Asset Management.
Americans are being conned into believing that U.S. corporations are hampered by outsize tax rates that undermine their competitiveness. Tax inversions, whereby U.S. multinational companies merge with foreign companies to re-domicile in the partnering company’s low-tax home country, are the logical result of oppressive U.S. corporate tax rates. Or so the story goes. Notwithstanding the complexity of international taxation issues, I’ve been analyzing U.S. corporate income statements for 30 years, and the reality is that taxes have never been lower for large U.S. corporations, while their profit margins have never been better. Yes, our statutory tax rate is high, but U.S. multinationals never pay retail.
Corporations’ contribution to paying the nation’s bills has steadily declined. In the 1950s, they contributed roughly one-third of all federal tax revenue. Today, that figure is down to 10 percent. Corporate income taxes averaged 4.6 percent of gross domestic product in the 1950s and 3.7 percent in the 1960s but have hovered near 2 percent since the 1990s. A review of corporate income statements makes clear that U.S. multinational corporations (not small- and middle-market companies) are paying a far lower percentage of their pre-tax income in taxes compared to even the early 1990s.
In 1993, Coca-Cola reported $3.2 billion in pre-tax income and paid $997 million, or 32 percent, in income taxes. In 2015, Coca-Cola reported $9.6 billion in pre-tax income and $2.2 billion, or 23 percent, in income taxes. In 1994, Merck reported pre-tax income of $4.4 billion and paid $1.4 billion, or 32 percent. Last year, it reported 17 percent of its pre-tax income in taxes. In fact, the financial statements of large corporations show that they often pay a third less in income taxes compared with even 25 years ago. When it comes to taxes, there’s never been a better time to be a U.S. multinational. On the other hand, it’s not a great time to be the federal government of a developed nation that needs to fund its operations, on which these corporations so critically depend.
It’s also incorrect to suggest that U.S. corporations are competitively disadvantaged compared with our peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Although the United States’ 35 percent statutory corporate tax rate is the second highest among OECD members, its effective corporate rate (after allowing for deductions, credits, depreciation and tax-advantaged foreign domiciles) falls in line with those of other developed economies. According to the Congressional Research Service, the weighted effective corporate tax rate (accounting for different tax systems and the relative sizes of the economies among these nations) for OECD nations overall is 27.7 percent, and in the United States it’s 27.1 percent. Similarly, the CRS estimates that corporate taxes among OECD nations equal 3 percent of their GDP on average, significantly more than the 2 percent of GDP paid by U.S. corporations. In its 2014 report on corporate taxation, the CRS concluded: “Corporate tax receipts in the U.S. have been below the OECD average since 1997, and before that they fluctuated closely around the OECD average.”
Some politicians suggest that we’re sending U.S. companies out onto the global battlefield to compete with one arm tied behind their backs. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “Our current corporate tax is the second highest in the industrialized world, which kills American jobs and puts American companies at a competitive disadvantage.” But Ryan regularly uses the misleading statutory corporate tax rate, instead of the effective rate, in trying to make the case that we’re strangling companies by taxing them too much.
To be clear, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’s ideas on taxation are not the solution. According to the Tax Foundation, Sanders’s plan to raise more than $13 trillion in additional tax revenue over 10 years would result in a huge drop in our country’s economic output. Sanders blithely dismisses the estimate by the foundation and others that U.S. GDP would likely drop by a staggering 10 percent if his tax ideas were implemented. To put a 10 percent drop in perspective, it’s 2.5 times the GDP decline experienced in the recent financial crisis, which sent the unemployment rate to above 10 percent. If Ryan and his allies believe we need to further coddle the goose that lays the golden eggs, Sanders and his supporters want to kill it.
By all means simplify, broaden the base and reduce the economic distortions of the corporate tax code. However, the federal government cannot afford to collect less revenue. Since World War II, the government has collected roughly 19 percent annually in tax revenue from all sources, as a percentage of GDP, vs. the average of the past five years of 15.8 percent. Federal spending is currently in line with the postwar average of about 20 percent of GDP, but it stands to dramatically rise as the bill for an increasingly older society comes due. Thus, the corporate contribution toward financing the nation’s health, education and welfare cannot drop any lower. Historically, paying one’s bills was a conservative idea, and it’s a good one.
U.S. multinational corporations disproportionately benefit from the nation’s infrastructure and research and development expenditures because they increase company revenue and improve efficiency. These corporations also disproportionately benefit from military spending, because they own more property and capital that need to be protected from enemies. Their income taxes are already at all-time lows, and, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, their operating margins are the highest on record since 1965. And some want to abandon the homeland now? That some U.S. corporations want to escape paying their fair share undermines our country’s civic senses of duty and responsibility. Interestingly, we haven’t seen other OECD nations’ companies, with the same effective tax rates, attempt inversions.
The Treasury Department was correct to effectively end inversions. But the story doesn’t end there, because other schemes are being imagined. We need to end the industry of lobbyists whose sole purpose is to carve out loopholes for U.S. multinational corporations that render our statutory tax rates moot.
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