U.S. corporations earn record high profits, pay record low taxes

U.S. businesses have amassed an overseas cash hoard of $2.4 trillion because they aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, according to two think tanks. But that view is at odds with how Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump and fiscal conservatives see it. They say the U.S. corporate tax rate is too high.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Americans for Tax Fairness argue that U.S. corporate profits are at record highs while business tax revenue as a share of GDP is at record lows. Businesses can take advantage of loopholes to lower their bills to Uncle Sam, including one that enables them to indefinitely postpone the payment of taxes on profits earned overseas. The think tanks estimate that this strategy costs the U.S. Treasury about $126 billion a year in lost revenue.

“The facts show that corporate America is not overtaxed and, in fact, goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying what they owe,” said Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness, in a news release. “We hope this book of data can help change the false narrative on taxes peddled by wealthy corporations and their allies in Washington.”

The U.S. marginal, or statutory, corporate tax rate of 35 percent is the highest among the industrialized countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those who see that rate as too high have long argued that it places U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Trump, a real estate tycoon turned reality TV star, has called for lowering the rate to 15 percent. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has called for corporations to pay their “fair share of taxes” and promises to make so-called inversion deals, in which businesses give up their U.S. domicile and move to a country with lower rates, harder to execute.

Like most issues regarding taxation, this one has no shortage of opinions, especially because many U.S. companies don’t pay the 35 percent rate, thanks to loopholes and other tax breaks.  A 2013 Government Accountability Office report estimated the levy that businesses actually paid -- also called the effective tax rate -- at 10.6 percent. At times, some Fortune 500 companies have wound up paying little at all in U.S. income taxes.

“A lot of large, multinational corporations are trying to lower their tax bills,” said Hunter Blair, a budget analyst with EPI. “They’re holding out for another 2004 tax holiday,” which allowed companies to repatriate cash held abroad at a much lower rate than usual.

Apple (AAPL), Pfizer (PFE), Microsoft (MSFT) and General Electric (GE) now account for roughly one-quarter of the overseas cash pile generated by U.S. companies. According to data from Credit Suisse cited by the EPI’s Blair, about half of U.S. foreign earnings are repatriated or earmarked for future repatriation.

The U.S. is one of the few countries where companies are subject to tax on their profits regardless of where the profits occur instead of a “territorial” system that exempts foreign profits of foreign multinationals from domestic taxation. Having the highest corporate statutory rate doesn’t help matters either, according to Tax Foundation economist Kyle E. Pomerleau.

“This means if a company wants to invest in a new factory that would employ workers, it needs to think about what the additional tax will be on that next investment,” he wrote in an email. “Although the effective rate is important in many respects, it usually has little to do with how the tax impacts the economy. Reducing marginal tax rates would be beneficial regardless of what you think the level of taxation should be.”

  • Jonathan Berr On Twitter»

    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.