Given that big business provides the bulk of the money pouring into the political system, it is no surprise that members of Congress and presidential contenders alike tend to espouse the idea that large corporations are overtaxed. This myth gets repeated despite all the evidence that blue chip companies find endless ways to pay much less than the statutory rate.
It is now more difficult for the tax avoidance deniers to spread their snake oil. Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have just come out with a compelling study called Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers that examines the fine print of the financial statements of the country’s largest corporations and identifies scores of firms that fail to pay their fair share of the cost of government.
Looking at a universe of 280 companies, CTJ and ITEP find that over the past three years, 40 percent of them paid less than half of the statutory rate of 35 percent. Most of those paid what the study calls “ultra-low” rates of less than 10 percent. Thirty of the firms actually had negative tax rates, meaning that Uncle Sam was paying them for doing business. In dollar terms, the biggest recipients of tax subsidies over the three-year period were Wells Fargo ($18 billion), AT&T ($14.5 billion), Verizon Communications ($12.3 billion) and General Electric ($8.4 billion). The freeloaders had rates as low as minus 57.6 percent. You should read the study for yourself to get all the juicy details.
CTJ and ITEP have been putting out these bombshell reports periodically over the past three decades. The ones from the early 1980s drove the Reagan Administration crazy and paved the way for the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reversed many of the corporate giveaways of the initial Reagan years.
It is tempting to think that this new report will subvert the current corporate tax relief movement, but that is a tall order. Part of the reason is that corporations, having bought much of the policymaking apparatus, have become much more brazen in their self-serving behavior.
Let’s take the case of Nabors Industries, the world’s largest oil and gas land drilling contractor. Nabors was not eligible to be considered for the CTJ/ITEP study because it is headquartered in Bermuda. The company is not really Bermudan. Its principal offices are in Houston, but it re-incorporated itself in the island nation a decade ago for one simple reason: to escape paying U.S. federal income taxes (Bermuda imposes no such levies on corporations). It was part of a wave of companies that in the early 2000s underwent what were euphemistically called corporate inversions.
Critics called the moves “unpatriotic” or even “akin to treason,” but Nabors went ahead with its plan. There was an effort later in Congress to collect retroactive taxes from Nabors and a handful of other firms that had carried out inversions, but the move was blocked by New York Rep. Charles Rangel after Nabors CEO Eugene Isenberg made a $1 million contribution to a help build the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel was subsequently charged with an ethics violation in connection with the contribution.
Nabors and Isenberg have been in the news again recently in connection with another scandal. Nabors announced that it was paying Isenberg, now 81 years old, $100 million to give up his post as chief executive. Although the payment is linked to a severance agreement, Isenberg is remaining with the company as chairman of the board. The situation was remarkable enough to merit a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which is normally blasé about bloated executive pay.
Isenberg’s bonanza is the culmination of a series of outsized pay packages. In 2005, for instance, he received total compensation of more than $200 million. In 2008 his bonus alone was more than $58 million. In a non-binding vote earlier this year, a majority of Nabors shareholders disapproved the company’s executive pay policies.
It used to be that executive compensation was high in relation to worker pay rates put still a relatively small amount compared to revenue and profits in large companies. That has been changing. The payouts to Isenberg have a significant impact on the firm’s bottom line. The $100 million being collected by Isenberg to give up his CEO job more than wipes out the $74 million in profits Nabors posted for the most recent quarter. Nabors, by the way, has disclosed that it has been investigated by the Justice Department for making foreign bribes.
As the Institute for Policy Studies showed in a report a couple of months ago, it is not unusual for major companies to pay their chief executives more than they send to the Treasury in taxes. Add to that the CTJ/ITEP findings and the behavior of firms like Nabors, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in many large corporations the dominant motivation is to enrich their principals, even if that means sidestepping obligations to shareholders, government and workers. In other words, big business is increasingly acting as little more than a vehicle for expanding the wealth of the 1%.