While some in corporate America bemoan the country's tax system, complaining that businesses face high taxes, a number of companies are actually paying their CEOs more than they shell out to Uncle Sam, according to a new study.
Seven of the 30 biggest U.S. corporations paid their chief executives more than they paid in federal income taxes last year, the liberal-leaning Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government found. Those seven firms collectively reported more than $74 billion in U.S. pretax profits, but received refunds of $1.9 billion from the IRS, thanks to tax breaks and loopholes, according to the groups. Their CEOs were paid an average of $17.3 million in 2013.
The findings come at a time when Congress is likely to renew or extend dozens of expired tax breaks, which corporations have been lobbying to get renewed. The breaks help out specific interests, ranging from NASCAR race tracks to Puerto Rican rum production.
While some would also like to see corporate tax reform -- lowering the tax rate for U.S. corporations -- that more complicated task is seen as less likely. In the meantime, the study raises questions about whether corporations should reward one top executive more than they contribute to the country's tax system.
"We've seen this narrative that corporations are being disadvantaged by the tax systems, and there are a few companies that pay pretty high rates, like retailers, but there are others that use offshore tax loopholes and other extender bills to their full advantage," Scott Klinger, the director of revenue and spending policies at the Center for Effective Government, told CBS MoneyWatch.
Rather than investing in job creation, corporations are spending cash to boost stock buybacks and dividends, which reward shareholders, including top executives whose pay packages typically include stock awards, Klinger added.
Corporations spent $338.3 billion on stock buybacks in the first half of 2014, the most for any six-month stretch in more than seven years, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those companies with stock buyback programs have seen their shares outperform the overall market by 20 percent since 2008.
"The extraordinary amount that's going back into buying back stock goes to boost CEO pay," Klinger added. "That helps the stock go up, and that raises the value of CEO pay."
The theory behind tax breaks and loopholes is that corporations will "trickle down" the benefits to workers, but the study says that isn't the case. Instead of investing in hiring more workers or raising wages, some corporations are focused on repurchasing stock and acquisitions, the report notes.
One of the companies singled out by the report is Boeing (BA), which paid its CEO, W. James McNerney Jr., $23.3 million last year. At the same time, the company recorded pre-tax income of $5.95 billion, but received a tax refund of $82 million, which the report notes is an effective tax rate of negative 1.4 percent.
Boeing said its total tax expense for 2013 was $1.6 billion, but much of that is deferred because of the investments it's been making in airplane development and production, according to an email from spokesman Chaz Bickers.
"We make very significant investments in high-value engineering and manufacturing at Boeing facilities in the U.S, creating jobs designing, developing and producing new airplanes," Bickers wrote. "We have said consistently that our current tax expense and cash taxes are likely to increase as we deliver the new 787 [and get the revenue back from our investment] in high volume at steady rates," he added, referring to the company's Dreamliner aircraft.
A spokesperson with Citigroup (C), another company singled out in the report for paying its CEO more than it did in taxes, said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch that the financial institution "strictly abides by all tax laws in the United States and throughout the world." The company added, "In 2013, Citi paid more than $3 billion in payroll taxes and more than $95 million in use tax, personal property and real property taxes in the U.S."
Nevertheless, the study found that if those companies that pay their CEOs more than in taxes actually paid the full marginal statutory tax rate of 35 percent, that would have resulted in $25.9 billion in federal taxes. Instead, those seven companies reaped $1.9 billion in refunds.