Read the follow-up report released in December 2019,
Corporate Tax Avoidance in the First Year of the Trump Tax Law.
An in-depth analysis of Fortune 500 companies’ financial filings finds that at least 60 of the nation’s biggest corporations didn’t pay a dime in federal income taxes in 2018 on a collective $79 billion in profits, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy said today.
If these companies paid the statutory 21 percent federal tax rate, they would owe $16.4 billion in federal income taxes. Instead, they collectively received $4.3 billion in rebates. The analysis, Corporate Tax Avoidance Remains Rampant under New Tax Law, examines 2018 corporate financial filings that have been released to date. It provides an initial, comprehensive look at how corporate tax cuts under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act affected the tax-paying habits of corporations.
“For years, corporations have manipulated the system to avoid paying taxes, and it’s clear that the 2017 tax law did nothing to change this,” said Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at ITEP and lead author of the report.
The tax-avoiding corporations are some of the most profitable, recognizable companies in the world, and they represent a variety of industries, including technology, energy and gas, financial services, aviation, pharmaceutical and manufacturing. Earlier this year, ITEP reported Netflix and Amazon paid no federal taxes. Other companies on this list include Chevron, Delta Airlines, Eli Lilly, General Motors, Gannett, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Halliburton, IBM, Jetblue Airways, Principal Financial, Salesforce.com, US Steel, and Whirlpool. The complete list is at https://itep.org/notadime.
These companies avoided taxes by employing a variety of legal tax breaks. Accelerated depreciation allows companies to write off the cost of their investments much faster than these investments wear out. This break accounted for hundreds of millions in tax write-offs. Chevron alone, for example, reported $290 million in accelerated depreciation, and Halliburton reported $320 million.
Stock options provide a dubious tax break that allows corporations to write off expenses far in excess of the cost they report to investors. Amazon, Netflix, Salesforce.com and a number of other companies used this tax break to write off millions. Tax credits and subsidies also provided hundreds of millions in write-offs for corporations.
“These tax loopholes allow many profitable corporations to avoid paying a single dime in taxes, but it should also be noted that many other profitable corporations are also using these special breaks to pay far less than the 21 percent statutory federal income tax rate,” Gardner said.
The 2017 tax law dropped the statutory federal tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Lawmakers in favor of the law claimed that lowering the federal tax rate would make U.S. corporations more competitive globally, and they also claimed the tax cuts would spur innovation and pay for themselves. But prior to the tax law, many profitable corporations already avoided the statutory federal tax rate, and after the tax law, the biggest innovation is record-breaking stock buybacks, which have benefited wealthy investors.
A 2017 ITEP study examined eight years (2008 to 2015) of corporate financial filings and found that the average effective corporate tax rate was 21.4 percent, and 100 corporations managed to avoid all federal taxes in at least one year of the study. The 2017 tax law failed to close loopholes that enabled this rampant tax avoidance, and the consequences, which many economists predicted, are becoming evident. The Treasury Department last month reported that corporate tax collections in 2018 declined 31 percent from the previous year. This is the first year on record that corporate tax collections have fallen so precipitously during a period of economic expansion.
“We cannot pretend that corporate tax avoidance has no cost,” Gardner said. “Corporations zeroing out their tax bills or paying single-digit federal tax rates mean a substantial loss in federal revenue. Calls to cut critical programs and services in the wake of these corporate tax cuts are absolutely connected.”