Earlier this year, Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett made headlines by publicly decrying the stark inequity between his own effective federal tax rate (about 17 percent, by his estimate) and that of his secretary (about 30 percent). The resulting media firestorm has drawn welcome attention to unfair tax breaks that allow the richest Americans to avoid paying their fair share of the personal income tax. But these inequities are not limited to the personal tax. Our corporate tax system is plagued by very similar problems, problems that allow many of America’s most profitable corporations to pay little or nothing in federal income taxes.
This study takes a hard look at the federal income taxes paid or not paid by 280 of America’s largest and most profitable corporations in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The companies in our report are all from Fortune’s annual list of America’s 500 largest corporations, and all of them were profitable in each of the three years analyzed. Over the three years, the 280 companies in our survey reported total pretax U.S. profits of $1.4 trillion.
While the federal corporate tax code ostensibly requires big corporations to pay a 35 percent corporate income tax rate, on average, the 280 corporations in our study paid only about half that amount. And many paid far less, including a number that paid nothing at all.