Matthew Gardner is a Senior Fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). His work focuses on economic modeling, federal tax policy, state tax policy, and corporate taxes. A version of this post originally appeared on ITEP.org.
Since Congress and the current administration pushed through a major restructuring of our corporate tax laws that dropped the legal tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent almost two years ago, it’s been difficult to know how well the new laws were functioning—until now.
A new report from ITEP shows that, based on the first year of financial reports released by companies operating under the new tax law, tax avoidance appears to be every bit as much of a problem under the new tax system as it was before the 2017 tax law took effect. The ITEP report tabulates the effective tax rates paid by 379 profitable Fortune 500 corporations on their 2018 U.S. income and finds that as a group these companies paid an effective federal income tax rate of 11.3 percent. This means these companies sheltered almost half of their U.S. pretax income from federal income tax in 2018. The report also identifies 91 corporations—nearly a quarter of all the companies analyzed—that paid zero, or even less than zero, on their 2018 U.S. income last year. These companies include Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton, MGM Resorts and Netflix.
If these findings sound wearyingly familiar, that’s because they are: A first look at corporate financial disclosures in April of this year revealed 60 companies that didn’t pay a dime in federal income taxes on U.S. income in 2018. More so, only months before the tax cuts were enacted in 2017, ITEP released a multi-year analysis of the scale of tax avoidance under the 35 percent corporate tax rate then in effect. The study found that between 2008 and 2015, profitable companies paid effective tax rates averaging just 21 percent, not much more than half of the 35 percent they were allegedly paying. That report, like the new one, also identified dozens of companies paying zero or less in profitable years during this period.
And many of the companies paying low rates under the new system are the very same ones that benefitted handsomely from the previous rules. Just as was true before 2017, utilities and machinery companies are paying especially low tax rates, relying heavily on tax breaks for capital investment. Then as now, tax breaks for stock options distributed to top executives are a major tax avoidance source for many companies. This should surprise no one since a straightforward criticism of the 2017 tax cuts was that they did little to close the rampant (and, by all appearances, entirely legal) tax avoidance under the old system.
It’s too soon to say that this means tax avoidance has gotten worse under the new rules. 2018 is, after all, the first year of full implementation. Effective corporate tax rates are cyclical, varying over time, so these same companies could find themselves paying lower, or higher, tax rates next year. But the findings of ITEP’s new report send a clear signal that the fundamental problems with our corporate tax laws have not been fixed by the tax overhaul enacted two years ago.
It’s never too late to admit you’re wrong, and so one can hope that Congress and the federal administration might recognize the error of their ways and embark on a second round of tax restructuring that addresses the hard part of tax reform: loophole-closing reforms. Sadly, that does not appear to be the administration’s goal at this time: just last week White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the President “would love to see further refinements to tax policy” that would “get that corporate tax rate down just a little bit more.” ITEP’s new report makes it clear that a far better “refinement” of our corporate tax laws would be to make sure that whatever tax rate we choose to levy, our biggest and most profitable companies will actually pay it.