Archive for the ‘Subsidies’ Category

Private Equity and Public Assistance

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

schwarzmanEverything seems to be coming up roses for the barons of private equity. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal headlined BLOWOUT HAUL FOR BUYOUT TYCOONS proclaims: “Private equity’s top moguls took home more than $2.6 billion last year as booming markets allowed their firms to cash out of investments and notch blockbuster gains.”

Leon Black, the founder and chief executive of Apollo Global Management, led the pack with $546 million in compensation. Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone received $465 million and William Conway of the Carlyle Group $346 million. These three men are also well-placed on the new Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. Schwarzman comes in at No.122 with a net worth of $10 billion; Black at No. 240 and a net worth of $5.8 billion; and Conway No. 520 with $3.1 billion in net worth.

Vibrant stock markets are not the only reason for these massive paydays and accumulated fortunes. It’s well known that these firms and their principals also make out like bandits because of the favorable federal tax treatment of the revenue they extract from their portfolio companies. Now it is possible to demonstrate the extent to which the buyout kings are also being subsidized by state and local governments.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently unveiled a major enhancement of our Subsidy Tracker database. The main refinement in version 2.0 is the addition of parent-subsidiary linkages for more than 25,000 individuals entries accounting for 75 percent of the dollar value of the entire Tracker universe. These entries have been linked to nearly 1,000 parent companies, including many of the world’s largest corporations.

Included among the parent companies are the big private equity firms. In our matching process, we made sure to check which of the portfolio companies of those buyout firms were among the subsidy recipients included in Tracker. We found a lot.

Of the 50 largest buyout firms on the Private Equity International ranking of the largest players in that field,  30 were found to have subsidized portfolio companies. (Many of the other 20 either don’t reveal their portfolios or don’t do business in the United States.) Those companies had received a total of 1,332 subsidies worth $1.8 billion (dollar values are not available for some awards).

Here are the buyout firms whose portfolio companies have received the most in cumulative subsidies:

  • Silver Lake Partners is No. 35 on our list of top parent companies, with total associated subsidies of $482 million. This is mainly a reflection of the fact that Silver Lake took over the computer company Dell, which has received giant subsidies in places such as North Carolina and Tennessee.  (We attribute past subsidies to a company’s current parent, since awards often stretch over many years and usually transfer with a change of ownership.)
  • Onex is No. 45 on the list with subsidies of $388 million, the largest amounts coming from the large packages Spirit AeroSystems received in North Carolina and Kansas.
  • Blackstone is No. 91, with 141 subsidy awards totaling $203 million awarded to several dozen of its portfolio companies.
  • Apollo Global Management comes in at No. 111, with 107 subsidies amounting to $158 million. Among its most heavily subsidized portfolio companies are Berry Plastics and Verso Paper.

Other major buyout firms are also on the list, including TPG Capital ($68.6 million), KKR ($54.9 million), Bain Capital ($51.6 million) and the Carlyle Group ($36.6 million).

By themselves, state and local subsidies are usually not the predominant factor in the profitability of a portfolio company, but they certainly can contribute to a fatter bottom line. In a recent article about Subsidy Tracker, the investor website Motley Fool wrote:

Companies which are clearly adept at seeking out incentives are much more likely to be able to keep more of their hard-earned income as these subsidies often take the form of a multi-year tax break. Lower effective taxes within a state can allow for more research and development as well as hiring, which can lead to even faster growth for these companies. In other words, seeking out companies with large subsidies is another way of giving yourself an edge over the uninformed investor. Keep in mind that a large subsidy alone is no guarantee of a companies’ success, but it often translates into lower taxes and higher profits.

And when that company is in the portfolio of a buyout firm, those higher profits means that the operation can more easily be taken public and further enrich the likes of Black, Schwarzman and Conway.

Standing Up to the Boeing Bully

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
Boeing_IAM

photo from Seattle Times

Large corporations are generally not bashful about throwing their weight around, but Boeing is in a class by itself. While other companies may at various times make demands on their workers or on the communities in which they operate, the aerospace giant is willing to exert both forms of pressure at the same time and in a big way. In recent days it has been doing exactly that in Washington State, though not everything has gone according to its plan.

Boeing let it be known that it would build its new 777X airliner and its carbon fiber wing in the Puget Sound area, its traditional manufacturing home, only if it got major concessions from the taxpayers of the state and from its unionized workers.

The first consisted of a 16-year extension of a lucrative aerospace industry corporate tax break estimated to be worth $8.7 billion to Boeing (mostly) and its suppliers. This is the largest state subsidy package in U.S. history. Gov. Jay Inslee hurriedly called a special session of the state legislature to ratify the deal. Although some legislators grumbled, they voted overwhelmingly to give Boeing what it wanted.

This was a replay of what happened a decade ago, when Boeing got Inslee’s predecessor Gary Locke to push through the original aerospace industry giveaway at a price tag of $3.2 billion.  Those lawmakers apparently thought that Boeing, having gotten what it wanted, would stay put.

Yet Boeing’s concerns did not end at tax avoidance. The company has long sought to neutralize the power of its unionized employees, who in the Puget Sound area have been a lot less willing than the state legislature to give in to all of Boeing’s demands.

In 2009 the company took the brazenly anti-union step of announcing that it would locate a new assembly line for its Dreamliner in South Carolina, where it would in all likelihood be able to use non-union labor.  In addition to a more pliant workforce, Boeing took advantage of a state and local subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million. This year it was awarded another $120 million for an expansion of the facility.

Getting massive subsidies has been so easy for Boeing that in Kansas it  walked away from a $200 million deal and sold off its Wichita operations. Citizens for Tax Justice just pointed out that over the past decade Boeing has paid aggregate state corporate income taxes of less than zero (it got net rebates of $96 million).

Boeing apparently assumed that the threat of more runaway production would enable it to steamroll its Puget Sound unionized employees, the largest portion of whom are members of the Machinists union (IAM). Along with the tax deal, the company made its siting decision on the 777X contingent on the willingness of IAM members to give up some of the most important gains they have made through decades of difficult collective bargaining.

Those proposed concessions included a freezing of the contract’s traditional defined-benefit pension plan and its replacement with a defined-contribution, 401(k)-type plan as well as substantial increases in deductibles, co-pays and other employee health insurance costs. In an attempt to make those givebacks more palatable, Boeing offered a one-time $10,000 signing bonus.

Boeing seriously misjudged the mood of the rank and file. Rather than succumbing to the company’s pressure tactics, IAM members just voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract concessions. Press reports suggested that union members were most angered by the way in which the company tried to impose its will.

The next step is unclear. Boeing says that it will now hold a competition for the 777X work, and there are no doubt numerous states and localities that will make extravagant subsidy offers. Yet it turns out that shifting production to a new workforce is not as easy as the company implies. Boeing’s operations in South Carolina have reportedly not met output projections.

Boeing may very well come back to IAM members with less draconian contract terms that workers may decide to accept. But for now the vote stands as a strong rebuke to corporate imperiousness.

 

New in Corporate Rap Sheets: critical profiles of two more giants of mismanaged care—WellPoint and Humana.

GE Dumps Workers as It Dredges the Hudson

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

DUMP_YRD_SIGNFor 30 years, General Electric resisted calls to remove the toxic substances it had dumped into New York’s Hudson River over several decades. Now that the process is well under way, the company is striking back at the state by shutting its cleaned-up plant along the river and moving some 200 jobs to Florida. The workers slated to be laid off feel that they are now being dumped.

The site of the dispute is Fort Edward (about 200 miles north of New York City), where from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s GE produced electric capacitors using insulating material containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Vast quantities of PCB-contaminated waste ended up in the river’s waters and riverbed.

By the 1970s PCBs were recognized to be a human carcinogen and their manufacture was banned in the United States.  In 1975 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered GE to cease its PCB dumping and negotiated a path-breaking settlement under which the company would help pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution that had closed the river to commercial fishing and become a national symbol of corporate irresponsibility.

As the projected cost of the clean-up escalated, GE resisted dredging the river’s sediment, which was estimated to contain more than 130 metric tons of PCBs, and instead proposed dubious alternatives such as using bacteria to try to break down the toxic wastes. The company continued this obstruction for years, even after the EPA ordered it in 2001 to pay an estimated $460 million to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment. The legal battle finally ended in 2005, but it took until 2009 for GE to actually begin the dredging. The process is now in its fifth year.

The workers at the Fort Edward plant may not be around to celebrate the completion of the clean-up. A few weeks ago, GE announced that it planned to close the plant and move the operation to Clearwater, Florida. The Fort Edward workers have been represented by the United Electrical (UE) union for the past 70 years, while the Clearwater plant—as you might expect—is non-union.

The Fort Edward move is just the latest of a long series of actions by GE that have weakened the economy of upstate New York. The city of Schenectady, where Thomas Edison moved his electrical equipment operation in 1886, has alone lost tens of thousands of jobs through waves of GE downsizing.

GE also seems to feel no sense of obligation in connection with the economic development subsidies it has received from state and local government agencies in New York. The biggest giveaways have come downstate. In 1987, a year after it was acquired by GE, NBC pressured New York City to give it $98 million in tax breaks under the threat of moving its operations to New Jersey.  In 1999 investment house Kidder Peabody, then owned by GE, got its own $31 million package to stay in the city.

There have also been subsidies upstate. For example, in 2009 GE got a $5 million grant and a $2 million tax abatement for its operations in Schenectady. The company’s research center in Niskayuna, New York has received millions of dollars in local tax breaks.

When GE has not received enough subsidies for its satisfaction, the company sometimes tries to reduce its local tax bills by challenging the assessed value of its property. In 2002, for example, it sued to get the value of its turbine plant in Rotterdam, New York reduced from $159 million to $41 million. A compromise ruling gave GE some of what it wanted and forced the town to reimburse the company about $6 million. Not satisfied, the company later brought a new challenge and got the town to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.

And, of course, GE is notorious for its dodging in other states and at the federal level, where it also gets subsidized through agencies such as the Export-Import Bank and got TARP-related assistance for its GE Capital unit.

Members of UE Local 332 are vowing to fight the plant shutdown, but they are up against a company that has shown it is  willing to go to great lengths to get its way on environmental, labor and tax issues.

The ACA Employer Penalty Gap

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

walmart_jwj_subsidiesAlong with the scandalous number of the uninsured, one of the biggest healthcare outrages in the United States is the ability of large companies employing low-wage workers to avoid providing reasonable group coverage, letting those employees enroll instead in public programs such as Medicaid.

Those programs were meant for poor people not in the labor force or those working for marginal employers.  In the absence of any legal obligation to provide workplace coverage, giant prosperous corporations such as Wal-Mart exploit the public programs and thus shift costs onto taxpayers.

A recently updated report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that the workforce of a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter costs taxpayers some $250,000 a year in Medicaid costs (as part of at least $904,000 a year in overall safety net costs per store).

One might think that this is going to change under the Affordable Care Act that is gradually taking effect. While the law contains a requirement for individuals to have coverage, there is no real employer mandate to provide that coverage to workers. Instead, the ACA imposes penalties on certain employers for failing to provide affordable and inadequate coverage. Yet there are no fines levied when a boss pushes a worker onto the Medicaid rolls.

In fact, the ACA’s provisions encouraging states to adopt expanded Medicaid coverage, while a good thing for the uninsured, will make it easier for low-wage employers both to avoid providing group coverage and to escape penalties for doing so. This largely overlooked fact is worth keeping in mind when businesses complain about the supposedly onerous employer penalties in the ACA—penalties whose implementation the Obama Administration announced in July will be delayed for a year. (Also being delayed, we just learned, are provisions limiting the out-of-pocket costs insurance companies can impose.)

The ACA’s employer penalties have an exceedingly narrow scope. They will apply only when an employee of a firm with 50 or more full-time workers (the law’s definition of a “large” employer) seeks non-group coverage from an insurance company through one of the new state Exchanges that are being constructed and the employee qualifies for a premium or cost-sharing subsidy based on his or her household income.

Those individual subsidies are available only for workers whose household income is between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) for their family size and whose employer either fails to provide any group coverage or provides coverage that is unaffordable or inadequate. Coverage for people in that income range is deemed unaffordable if the premium (for self-only coverage) exceeds 9.5 percent of household income or the plan covers less than 60 percent of medical costs.

This means that employers of people earning less than the FPL or more than 400 percent of the FPL face absolutely no risk of penalties for failing to provide decent coverage, while the workers in those income ranges are denied subsidies from the Exchanges. Those earning less than the FPL may or may not be eligible for Medicaid, depending on the state. Those earning more than 400 percent of the FPL are not eligible for Medicaid in any state.

Penalties may also not apply when “large” employers fail to provide affordable coverage to those in the 100-400 percent of FPL range. That’s because some of those workers will for the first time qualify for Medicaid if they live in a state that accepts the optional federal incentives in the ACA for expanding Medicaid eligibility.

Do those conservative state legislators refusing to go along with Medicaid expansion realize that they are increasing the likelihood that employers will have to pay ACA penalties?

Some concern has been expressed about the potential coverage gap for those low-income families which are not eligible either for an Exchange subsidy or Medicaid, but much less attention has been paid to what amounts to an employer penalty gap.

A primary aim of the ACA is to reduce the ranks of the uninsured, but the rejection of a single-payer system means that workplace-based coverage needs to be strengthened. That should have meant a rigorous employer mandate. Instead, the ACA went with a pay-or-play system whose penalties turn out to be full of holes. Companies such as Wal-Mart may thus find it easy to continue shifting their healthcare costs onto the public.

At the state level, one of ways activists have sought to fight such cost-shifting has been to push for the disclosure of data showing which companies account for the largest number of enrollees in Medicaid and other public plans. Such shaming lists have been published for about half the states, with Wal-Mart or McDonald’s typically appearing at the top.

The ACA will require “large” employers to file reports indicating whether they provide group coverage (the effective date of this has also been pushed back). There is no indication in the ACA itself whether these reports can be made public, but given that they will be submitted to the IRS, it is likely that they will be treated as confidential. Not only does the ACA fail to impose a real employer mandate; it also appears to miss an opportunity to shame those freeloading employers which expect taxpayers to pick up the tab for their failure to provide decent coverage.

Subsidy Megadeals for Megacorporations

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

moneybagsThe Miami Herald recently published a story with the headline “Amazon Doesn’t Need Tax Incentives, But Localities Offer Millions in Tax Breaks.” Throwing large sums of money at large corporations in a desperate attempt to create jobs is an affliction not limited to public officials in Florida. It is a wasteful and self-defeating public policy that can be found throughout the United States.

An indication of just how pervasive the practice has become can be found in a new report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just issued. The title is Megadeals, and it is a look back at the largest state and local subsidy packages of the past three decades.

In the course of five months of painstaking research, we identified 240 of those packages with a total value of at least $75 million each; the aggregate cost is more than $64 billion. Many of them reach into nine and even ten figures. There are eleven deals costing $1 billion or more in public money.

Most astounding are the costs per job. The average for our 240 megadeals is $456,000 and there are 18 for which the cost per job is $1 million or more.

Megadeals have been awarded to many of the largest and best known companies based in the United States as well as foreign ones doing business here, including: General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and just about every other large automaker; oil giants such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell; aerospace leaders Boeing and Airbus; banks such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs; media companies such as Walt Disney and its subsidiary ESPN; retailers such as Sears and Cabela’s; old-line industrials such as General Electric and Dow Chemical; and tech stars such as Amazon.com, Apple, Intel and Samsung.

Sixteen of the Fortune 50 are represented. Not included is the company atop of the Fortune list: Wal-Mart. That’s not because Wal-Mart doesn’t receive subsidies—Good Jobs First has separately documented more than $1.2 billion in such taxpayer assistance in our Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch website—but its deals have been worth less than $75 million each and thus don’t qualify for our list.

The most expensive single listing is a 30-year discounted-electricity deal worth an estimated $5.6 billion given to aluminum producer Alcoa by the New York Power Authority. Taking all of a company’s megadeals into account, Alcoa is at the top with its single $5.6 billion deal, followed by Boeing (four deals worth a total of $4.4 billion), Intel (six deals worth $3.6 billion), General Motors (11 deals worth $2.7 billion), Ford Motor (9 deals worth $2.1 billion), Nike (1 deal worth $2 billion) and Nissan (four deals worth $1.8 billion).

The overall costs of megadeals have risen over the past three decades (in current dollars). The megadeals from the 1980s averaged $157 million. The average rose to $175 million in the 1990s and $325 million in the 2000s. It then declined to $260 million in the 2010s. The average for the list as a whole is $269 million.

Some of the deals involve little if any new-job creation; indeed, one in ten of the deals involves the mere relocation of an existing facility, usually within the same state and often a short distance. Some of these retention deals were granted in so-called job blackmail episodes in which a company threatened to move jobs out of state unless it got new tax breaks or other subsidies.

The megadeals list is a new enhancement of Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker database, the first compilation of company-specific data on economic development deals from around the country.

Until now, the content of Subsidy Tracker has consisted exclusively of official disclosure data provided by state and local governments. The information has been obtained from government websites and from direct requests to agencies.  Given the limitations of the disclosure practices among state and local governments—and often from program to program within jurisdictions—the exclusive reliance on official data meant that Subsidy Tracker was missing information on many large deals that had been reported in the media. Either those deals were missing entirely if there was no official disclosure for the programs involved, or else Tracker had incomplete data if some but not all of the programs used in the package were disclosed.

To rectify this problem, we went back and collected information on large deals using a variety of sources, including press releases, newspaper articles and reports on specific projects as well as the official data we already had. The results went into the creation of the megadeals list and have been incorporated into Subsidy Tracker.

Note: The page containing the Megadeals report also has a link to a spreadsheet with full details on all 240 of the deals.

How Taxpayers Subsidize Union Avoidance by Wal-Mart and Nissan

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

walmart strikeMost Americans have been made to believe that they have no stake in private sector labor issues. Unions, we are told, are irrelevant to the working life of the vast majority of the population, whose economic fate is supposedly being determined solely by their employers or by individual skills in maneuvering through the labor market.

This narrative, however, is being challenged by organizing campaigns that are taking on two giant corporations – Wal-Mart and Nissan – and showing that collective action is not defunct. And two reports related to the campaigns show that not only the workers involved, but also taxpayers in general, have a stake in their outcome.

For the past 30 years, Wal-Mart has fought bitterly against the efforts of its employees to organize for better pay and benefits. It showed no hesitation in firing workers who supported union drives and routinely closed down operations where successful representation elections were held.

A new wave of non-traditional organizing by Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart has revived the prospects for change at the giant retailer. Strikes have become a frequent occurrence at Wal-Mart stores in recent weeks, and large numbers of Wal-Mart workers and their supporters have been converging on Bentonville, Arkansas to make their voices heard at the company’s annual meeting.

A recent report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce is a reminder that taxpayers are put in a position of subsidizing the low wages and poor benefits that the Wal-Mart campaigners are protesting. The study, which updates a 2004 report by the committee, reviews the hidden taxpayer costs stemming from the fact that many Wal-Mart workers have no choice but to use social safety net programs—such as Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit—that were designed for individuals not in the labor force or those working for small companies that failed to provide decent compensation, not a leviathan with $17 billion in annual profits.

The Democratic staff report estimates that today the workers in a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter (Wisconsin is used as the example) make use of programs that cost taxpayers at least $904,542 a year and possibly as much as $1.7 million. Since Wal-Mart has more than 3,000 Supercenters in the U.S., plus hundreds of other types of stores, those costs run into the billions.

Nissan has been following in Wal-Mart’s footsteps in Mississippi, where it opened a large assembly plant a decade ago. The plant brought several thousand direct jobs to the state, but the problem is that many of the jobs are substandard. The company makes extensive use of temps, who are currently paid only about $12 an hour.

In response to the use of temps as well as issues concerning the conditions faced by regular employees, Nissan workers have been organizing themselves with the help of the United Auto Workers. Rather than accepting labor representation, as it does in numerous other countries, Nissan is seeking to intimidate workers using the usual toolbox of union avoidance techniques such as threats and bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda.  The workers, however, have been bolstered by strong community support from groups such as the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently issued a report commissioned by the UAW documenting the extent to which Nissan has enjoyed lavish tax breaks and other financial assistance from state and local government agencies. We found that the subsidies, which were originally estimated at around $300 million when the company first came to the state in 2000, have mushroomed to the point that they could be worth some $1.3 billion. That works out to some $290,000 per job. Noting the over-dependence on temps, we state that Mississippi taxpayers are paying “premium amounts for jobs that in many cases are far from premium.”

Although it was outside the scope of our report, it is clear that the Nissan temps, like the Wal-Mart workers, are also generating hidden taxpayer costs through their use of safety net programs. And we have previously documented that Wal-Mart frequently gets the kind of economic development subsidies Nissan is enjoying in Mississippi.

Whether through hidden taxpayer costs or job subsidies, the public is frequently put in the position of aiding companies like Wal-Mart and Nissan that disregard labor rights while failing to pay their fair share of the cost of government. Perhaps the interests of taxpayers and workers are not so different after all.

 

Apologies and Apple

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

bad-appleIn 2010 Texas Rep. Joe Barton took the bizarre step of apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s effort to get the oil giant to compensate those affected by its massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barton faced a firestorm of criticism and had to retract his statement.

It will be interesting to see if Sen. Rand Paul has to do the same with his outrageous statement the other day arguing that the Senate should apologize to Apple for the report of its investigations subcommittee documenting brazen tax dodging by the company. “I would say what we really need to do is to apologize to Apple, compliment them for the job creation they are doing, and get about doing our job,” Paul declared at a hearing to discuss the report.

I don’t know how Apple CEO Tim Cook restrained himself from jumping up and giving Paul a big wet kiss on the lips. Cook instead offered testimony that was part p.r. spiel about the wonderfulness of Apple and part outright dishonesty about its tax practices. Among his claims: “Apple does not use tax gimmicks.”

The problem is that the investigations subcommittee’s 40-page report described an array of loopholes and tricks by which Apple has shielded tens of billions of dollars from federal taxation.  At the center of the scheme is the artificial designation of vast amounts of cash as being held offshore to keep it outside the reach of the IRS. That hoard, which now totals more than $100 billion, is actually, the New York Times reports, held in bank accounts in New York in the name of Apple subsidiaries based in Ireland.

For tax purposes, Apple claims that its key Irish entity has no legal residency (nor a physical presence or employees), meaning that it is not effectively taxed anywhere. A recent analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice concluded that Apple has paid “almost no income taxes to any country” on its offshore stash. This undermines the arguments made by Apple and other corporations for a new repatriation tax holiday or a shift to a territorial tax system.

“Apple has a very strong moral compass, and we believe in really good corporate citizenship,” Cook recently told the Washington Post. That claim was already preposterous, given past revelations about abysmal working conditions at the company’s supplier plants in China.

Tax dodging, unfortunately, is not widely regarded as being on a par with sweatshops as an indicator of corporate social irresponsibility. Apple, for instance, feels compelled to publish material asserting that it and its suppliers support labor and human rights and that they operate in an environmentally sound manner. There is no such statement on its website about compliance with tax laws.

Apple, like just about every other large corporation, not only manipulates the federal tax code but does the same at the state and local level, both through accounting schemes and by negotiating economic development subsidy deals, which frequently include corporate income tax credits, business property tax abatements and the like.

Last year, for example, Apple took an $89 million subsidy package to build a data center in Reno, Nevada that was expected to create only 35 permanent Apple employees. Three years earlier, Apple got a state subsidy package in North Carolina worth over $46 million (plus more at the local level) for a similar facility that was projected to produce only 50 permanent jobs.

Apple and other companies justify the taking of subsidies because it is legal and because it is usually linked to job creation, though in the case of Apple the number of jobs, at the data centers at least, is minute compared to the lost tax revenue.

What demands by rich companies for subsidies they don’t need really shows is that tax minimization is not, as corporate apologists would have us believe, just a response to the complexity of the federal tax code. It is a compulsion to increase net income, regardless of the consequences for the public. That is part of the definition of corporate irresponsibility.

Companies like Apple will continue to get away with fiscal murder until tax dodging and excessive subsidy taking are as stigmatized as the use of sweatshop labor and toxic dumping. At that point, even politicians of Rand Paul’s ilk might have to think twice about challenging the right of Congress to investigate unscrupulous tax accounting practices.

The Wrong Kind of Magnetism

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

In his State of Union address President Obama declared: “Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.” Obama just repeated those words while nominating as Commerce Secretary a billionaire whose family business has pursued a very different goal: accumulating vast wealth on the backs of underpaid and mistreated workers.

Obama praised Penny Pritzker as “one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders,” adding: “She’s built companies from the ground up.  She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur.  She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs.”

What he didn’t say is that Pritzker, whose personal net worth is estimated by Forbes at $1.9 billion, sits on the board of Hyatt Hotels, which is the best known part of a business empire founded by her grandfather and his sons. Much less did Obama mention that Hyatt has been denounced by the union UNITE HERE as “the worst hotel employer in America,” because it has “abused workers, replacing career housekeepers with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain.” The union also criticizes the company for resisting worker organizing efforts and for taking a hard line in bargaining at those hotels where a collective bargaining relationship exists. UNITE HERE’s corporate campaign against the company is called Hyatt Hurts.

UNITE HERE has also targeted other parts of the Pritzker empire, including a manufacturing conglomerate called the Marmon Group, controlling ownership of which is now held by Berkshire Hathaway. The union blamed the Pritzkers for the decision by Marmon to shut down its Union Tank Car production facility in East Chicago and shift the jobs to Louisiana, where it had been offered some $63 million in tax abatements and infrastructure assistance. The union produced a film about the issue entitled “Show Us the Tax Breaks.”

The sad truth is that the behavior of Hyatt Hotels and the Pritzkers is far from unusual. Large corporations have no hesitation about eliminating or undermining well-paid jobs while shifting investment to areas where workers are weak and where public officials dish out lavish subsidy packages. Take Caterpillar. The company is currently taking a hard line in its contract talks with the Steelworkers union at a mining-equipment plant in Milwaukee it took over as part of its acquisition of Bucyrus International. Last year, Cat got a $77 million subsidy package to open a plant in Georgia that it undoubtedly assumes will operate non-union. Boeing, which built a new Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina to get away from union workers in Seattle, this year announced a $1 billion expansion of that operation, for which it’s getting another $120 million in subsidies.

Foreign corporations are employing the same southern strategy. Japan’s Yokohama Rubber just announced plans for a $300 million truck tire plant in Mississippi for which the state legislature just approved some $130 million in subsidies. Toyota is getting a $146 million in subsidies for an expansion of its assembly operations in Kentucky.

If there is a manufacturing revival in the United States, it consists mainly of companies taking advantage of cheap, non-union labor and large giveaways of taxpayer money. And whatever growth is occurring in the service sector includes too many substandard jobs like those offered by Hyatt. If this is what Obama means when talking about making the U.S. a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing, that’s not the kind of magnetism the country needs. And we don’t need someone in the Cabinet who symbolizes that destructive process.

Amazon Gets Its Way

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

amazonWhen companies get subsidies from state and local governments, it usually means that they have to pay less in taxes. Internet retailing behemoth Amazon.com built its business on making sure it could avoid collecting sales taxes from many of its customers, thus allowing it to undercut its brick and mortar rivals.

It now looks like that indirect subsidy is finally coming to an end. Congress seems poised to pass legislation that would require all online merchants with $1 million or more in revenue (Amazon’s annual sales are 60,000 times larger at $61 billion) to collect state and municipal sales taxes from customers anywhere in the country. This will be a godsend to struggling governments that need the revenue to pay for education, healthcare and other vital services.

Amazon has already come to terms with this policy change and in fact has been taking steps to exploit it. As has been widely reported, Amazon recognizes that the next stage in internet retailing is same-day delivery, at least in selected areas. To make that service possible, Amazon needs to greatly expand its network of huge distribution centers from which all those Kindles and toys and kitchen gadgets can be quickly transported to impatient customers. The company just reported a 37 percent drop in its first quarter profits that has been attributed in part to the cost of expanding that distribution network.

Don’t shed any tears for Amazon. That drop is probably just a blip. The company has already taken steps to radically reduce the cost of building those new facilities.

It has done this by using its sales tax collection practices as leverage in negotiating with state governments. For several years, the company negotiated special exemptions from the requirement to collect taxes in those states where it had a physical presence such as a warehouse. In some states, such as South Carolina in 2011, it used the promise of job creation linked to new distribution centers as bait to get the exemptions.

When necessary, the company also tried to use those promises to evade obligations to make good on judgments concerning uncollected past taxes. For example, last year the company reached a deal with Texas that allowed it to skate on a $269 million assessment for uncollected taxes. In exchange, the company agreed to invest $200 million on facilities it would have had to build anyway.

The company is also shifting its demands to traditional economic development subsidies such as income tax credits, property tax abatements and cash grants. For example, the company got a $7.5 million state grant and a $1 million local abatement for a distribution center it agreed to build in Delaware, and it agreed to build two such facilities in New Jersey on the condition that it receive a subsidy package, the value of which has not yet been announced

Amazon has also received a $2 million tax credit and up to $300,000 in training grants from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation for a fulfillment center it agreed to build in Jeffersonville. That agency — whose website lures companies with the pitch “Looking for a right-to-work state with all the right resources, business incentives, low corporate tax rates and AAA credit rating in place to reach your full potential?  – is in tune with Amazon’s sensibilities. For in addition to seeking financial assistance, Amazon takes advantage of the implicit subsidy created by weak labor laws.

The fact that its U.S. operations have remained entirely non-union has made it easier for the company to impose inhuman working conditions in its facilities, which have been the target of criticism by groups such as Working Washington. The controversy has also emerged at Amazon’s operations in Germany, where the company was accused of using neo-Nazi thugs to intimidate immigrant workers at the facilities.

Amazon, it appears, will stop at nothing in its quest to dominate online commerce.

A Tale of Two States and Subsidy Transparency

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

florida sunshineFlorida and Mississippi may come close to sharing a border, but they are worlds apart in their current approach to the disclosure of economic development subsidies.

Florida has just launched an Economic Development Incentives Portal that makes it easy to discover which companies have benefited from programs such as the Quick Action Closing Fund, the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund and the High Impact Performance Incentive.

Online subsidy disclosure is not completely new to Florida. An agency called the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development used to post a PDF list of recipients for various programs. After Rick Scott took office as governor in 2011, that agency was put under the auspices of the new Department of Economic Opportunity, and the old disclosure site disappeared. DEO promised to restore transparency and has now made good on that promise.

The new portal, produced by DEO in partnership with Enterprise Florida, covers a dozen programs with a total of about 1,250 entries, including “every non-confidential incentive project with an executed contract since 1996 that received or is on schedule to receive payments from the state of Florida.” DEO promises to add listings for confidential projects as their exemptions from disclosure requirements expire.

Searches can be targeted according to business name, county or date range. The results show company name, industry, subsidy value, county, approval date and project status. They also include both committed and actual numbers for jobs and investment, though in many cases the performance figures are listed as not available. The portal also includes projects that are inactive or have been terminated.

Florida’s portal is an important advance for subsidy transparency. The site would be even more useful if it included street addresses for the subsidized facilities (to facilitate mapping) and allowed downloading of search results in spreadsheet form.  At my request, DEO sent such a spreadsheet for the entire database, which I used both to prepare this piece and to upload the information to Subsidy Tracker.

Mississippi, on the other hand, is resisting online disclosure. The state legislature recently killed a bill that would have required the Mississippi Development Authority to publish an annual report on the tax credits, loans and grants it provides to companies in the name of economic development.

It turns out that the agency produced such a report for internal purposes but did not make it public. A group called the Bigger Pie Forum learned about the document—the 2012 Mississippi Incentives Report—and filed a successful freedom of information act request. Bigger Pie was only able to get a hard copy, but it scanned the report and has posted it online here. The info in that report has also been added to Subsidy Tracker.

Despite the reluctance of state legislators, online subsidy disclosure has come to Mississippi. Perhaps the Magnolia State will realize the futility of resisting official transparency and join the Sunshine State, among about 45 others, in making subsidy information directly available to the public via the web.

Note: The latest addition to CORPORATE RAP SHEETS is a dossier on the Royal Bank of Scotland, including its nine-figure settlements of charges relating to violations of U.S. economic sanctions and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.  Speaking of subsidies, the rap sheet mentions that a U.S. subsidiary of RBS extracted a $100 million subsidy from the state of Connecticut to move its offices from New York to Stamford. Read the rap sheet here.