Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati-based company behind Pampers diapers and Tide detergent, reported a federal tax burden in 1969 that was 40 percent of its total profits, a typical rate in those days.
More than four decades later, P&G is a very different company, with operations that span the globe. It also reports paying a very different portion of its profits in federal taxes: 15 percent.
The world’s biggest maker of consumer products isn’t the only one. Most of the 30 companies listed on the country’s most famous stock index, the Dow Jones industrial average, have seen a dramatically smaller percentage of their profits go to U.S. coffers over time, even as their share prices have driven the Dow to an all-time high.
A Washington Post analysis found that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, companies in the current Dow 30 routinely cited U.S. federal tax expenses that were 25 to 50 percent of their worldwide profits. Now, most are reporting less than half that share.
The reason is not simply a few loopholes tucked deep in the tax code.
It’s far bigger: the slow but steady transformation of the American multinational after years of globalization. Companies now have an unprecedented ability to move their capital around the world, and the corporate tax code has not kept up with the changes.
Just the opposite, in fact. Experts say the U.S. code has encouraged companies to shift their income overseas where it is more lightly taxed. Many firms, in turn, have discovered that just as they can move their manufacturing to other parts of the world, so, too, can they shift their income to far-flung tax havens such as the Cayman Islands.
The result is lower revenue here that could pay for infrastructure, education and other services that support domestic growth – and that make life easier for U.S. firms.
As momentum builds for President Barack Obama and Congress to overhaul the corporate tax code, this steep decline in tax expenses as a share of profits is a critical factor in the debate. And increased globalization has made the task of fixing the tax code much more difficult than the country’s last overhaul in 1986.
Company executives have complained for years that their firms face the highest tax burden in the world, citing the United States’ 35 percent top corporate tax rate as the highest among developed economies.
Many companies argue that fixing the tax code would help improve economic growth, but that calculus has become more complicated as the interests of U.S. multinationals appear less neatly tethered to the interests of this country. This phenomenon has become especially clear during the economic recovery, with firms booking record profits while many American families still struggle with the wreckage from the Great Recession.
“When you get U.S. businesses coming to Washington and talking about, ‘We need to do this and that for the U.S. economy,’ what does that even mean?” said Doug Shackelford, a professor of taxes at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “Who are they referring to? Is it U.S. workers? Is it U.S. shareholders?“
At first blush, the decline in corporate taxation could be a result of simple math. The top U.S. corporate tax rate – that 35 percent that companies complain about – is actually down from 48 percent in 1971.
But that’s only part of the story.
Overseas earnings soar
A major factor is that profits earned abroad, which in theory are subject to the same U.S. tax rate, often are taxed much more lightly, and companies are earning more overseas than ever.
Of the 25 companies in the Dow 30 that break down their pretax income between domestic and foreign sources, 14 earned more money overseas than they did in the United States in the most recent annual filings available.
Any dollar earned abroad does not get taxed by the U.S. government until it flows back to the parent company. A J.P. Morgan report estimates there is $1.7 trillion of foreign earnings being held untaxed overseas by more than 1,000 U.S. firms.
Companies have also found ways to shift their income across national boundaries, roving from country to country in search of the lowest tax burden. Robert Willens, who has been a corporate tax expert for more than 40 years, said he has noticed an unprecedented level of enthusiasm for reducing taxes.
“Maybe it’s just the pressure to produce profits,” Willens said. “I think people realize now that it’s not difficult to avoid U.S. taxes.... and investors are demanding consistently improving performance.”
According to a Congressional Research Service report from this past January, U.S. multinationals in 2008 reported 43 percent of their overseas profits in Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, all places famous for having among the lowest tax rates in the world.
The same report noted that profits reported in Bermuda have risen from 260 percent of the country’s economic output in 1999 to more than 1,000 percent in 2008.
None of this has stopped companies from coming to Washington and making their case that they are paying way too much in taxes. And they are getting a full hearing as some top lawmakers move to overhaul the corporate tax code.
The current system represents the worst of two worlds: It charges a relatively high rate, yet many companies don’t actually pay it.
‘An outdated remnant’
One of the strangest things about the corporate tax debate is that it is nearly impossible to figure out the amount companies are actually paying. Nowhere is there a straightforward number showing how much in federal taxes a firm pays to the U.S. Treasury every year.
Instead, firms list a “current tax provision” number that is an accountant’s estimate used to calculate earnings but that is not meant to equal the size of the company’s U.S. federal tax bill.
After doing its analysis, The Washington Post contacted every company in the Dow 30 and asked to see the actual figures paid to the federal government every year. No company provided the information.
Over the long run, tax experts say, the publicly available numbers, however flawed, offer the closest look an outsider can get at what a company pays.
And while many companies hold their money overseas, a number of executives have said that they would be willing to bring some of that money back to this country if the U.S. tax rate were not so high.
“The U.S. system for taxing its corporate citizens on their global income . . . is an outdated remnant that inhibits our ability to compete globally,” said Gregory J. Hayes, chief financial officer of United Technologies, in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in May 2011. “It was designed when the U.S. was the dominant economy and before globalization became an unmistakable market reality.”
Some momentum is now building for changes to the code, driven mainly by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of Ways and Means. Camp has said he is interested in lowering the top corporate rate to 25 percent. He also favors exempting 95 percent of overseas earnings from U.S. taxation when that income is brought back to the United States.
These signals have sent U.S. firms scrambling to lobby for tax law changes that would benefit their industries. But what helps one group of companies can very well hurt another. As a recent report from the law firm K&L Gates warned business clients, “If You’re Not At the Table, You’re On the Menu.”