Ostensibly, the U.S. federal tax code requires corporations to pay 35 percent of their profits in income taxes.
But of the 275 Fortune 500 companies that made a profit each year from 2001 to 2003 and for which adequate information to draw conclusions is publicly available, only a small proportion paid federal income taxes anywhere near that statutory 35 percent tax rate. The vast majority paid considerably less.
In fact, in 2002 and 2003, the average effective tax rate for all of these 275 companies was less than half the statutory 35 percent rate. Over the 2001-2003 period, effective tax rates ranged from a low of -59.6 percent for Pepco Holdings to a high of 34.5 percent for CVS.
Over the three-year period, the average effective rate for all 275 companies dropped by a fifth, from 21.4 percent in 2001 to 17.2 percent in 2002-2003.
The statistics are startling:
•Eighty-two of the 275 companies, almost a third of the total, paid zero or less in federal income taxes in at least one year from 2001 to 2003. In the years they paid no income tax, these companies earned $102 billion in pretax U.S. profits. But instead of paying $35.6 billion in income taxes as the statutory 35 percent corporate tax rate seems to require, these companies generated so many excess tax breaks that they received outright tax rebate checks from the U.S. Treasury, totaling $12.6 billion. These companies' "negative tax rates" meant that they made more after taxes than before taxes in those no-tax years.
•Twenty-eight corporations enjoyed negative federal income tax rates over the entire 2001-2003 period. These companies, whose pretax U.S. profits totaled $44.9 billion over the three years, included, among others: Pepco Holdings (-59.6 percent tax rate), Prudential Financial (-46.2 percent), ITT Industries (-22.3 percent), Boeing (-18.8 percent), Unisys (-16.0 percent), Fluor (-9.2 percent) and CSX (-7.5 percent), the company previously headed by current Secretary of the Treasury John Snow.
•In 2003 alone, 46 companies paid zero or less in federal income taxes. These 46 companies told their shareholders they earned U.S. pretax profits in 2003 of $42.6 billion, yet they received tax rebates totaling $5.4 billion. Almost as many companies, 42, paid no tax in 2002, reporting $43.5 billion in pretax profits, yet receiving $4.9 billion in tax rebates. From 2001 to 2003, the number of no-tax companies jumped from 33 to 46, an increase of 40 percent.
•In 2001, the Treasury paid corporations $40 billion in tax refunds, a third more than the 1998-2000 average.
•Then in 2002 and 2003, after the law was changed to expand tax subsidies and make it easier for corporations to carry back excess tax breaks to earlier years, corporate tax refunds skyrocketed to an average of $63 billion a year - more than double the 1998-2000 average.
Corporations are now paying the lowest levels of taxes in the post-World War II era. In fiscal 2002 and 2003, federal corporate incomes taxes dropped to their lowest sustained level as a share of the economy since World War II. Only a single year during the early Reagan administration was lower.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan fully abandoned his earlier policy of showering tax breaks on corporations. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 closed tens of billions of dollars in corporate loopholes, so that by 1988, the overall effective corporate tax rate for large corporations was up to 26.5 percent. That improvement occurred even though the statutory corporate tax rate was cut from 46 percent to 34 percent as part of the 1986 reforms.
In the 1990s, however, many corporations began to find ways around the 1986 reforms, abetted by tax-shelter schemes devised by major accounting firms.
Effective corporate tax rates then plummeted, thanks to Bush administration-backed tax breaks passed in 2002 and 2003, continued corporate offshore tax-sheltering, and the refusal of the Congress and White House to crack down on even the most abusive inherited corporate tax-sheltering activities.
Corporate taxes paid for more than a quarter of federal outlays in the 1950s and a fifth in the 1960s. They began to decline during the Nixon administration, yet even by the second half of the 1990s, corporate taxes still covered 11 percent of the cost of federal programs. But in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, corporate taxes paid for a mere 6 percent of federal expenses.
Billions and billions
Over the 2001-2003 period, the 275 Fortune 500 companies that were profitable each year and for which adequate information is publicly available earned almost $1.1 trillion in pretax profits in the United States. Had all of those profits been reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and taxed at the statutory 35 percent corporate tax rate, then the 275 companies would have paid $370 billion in income taxes over the three years. But instead, the companies reported only about half of their profits - $557 billion - to the IRS. Instead of a 35 percent tax rate, the companies as a group paid a three-year effective tax rate of only 18.4 percent.
In 2002 and 2003, the 275 companies sheltered more than half of their profits from tax. They told their shareholders they earned $739 billion in those two years, but they paid taxes on less than half of that, only $363 billion.
Loopholes and other tax subsidies cut taxes for the 275 companies by $43.4 billion in 2001, $60.8 billion in 2002 and $71.0 billion in 2003, for a total of $175.2 billion in tax breaks over the three years.
Half of the total tax-break dollars over the three years - $87.1 billion - went to just 25 companies, each with more than a billion-and-a-half dollars in tax breaks.
General Electric topped the list of corporate tax break recipients, with $9.5 billion in tax breaks over the three years.
Effective tax rates varied widely by industry. Over the 2001-2003 period, industry effective tax rates for the 275 corporations ranged from a low of 1.6 percent to a high of 27.7 percent.
In 2003, the range of industry tax rates was even greater, ranging from a low of -30.0 percent (a negative rate) up to a high of 27.9 percent.
•Aerospace and defense companies enjoyed the lowest effective tax rate over the three years, paying only 1.6 percent of their profits in federal income taxes. This industry's taxes declined sharply over the three years, falling to -30.0 percent of profits in 2003.
•Other very low-tax industries, paying less than half the statutory 35 percent tax rate over the entire 2001-2003 period, included: transportation (4.3 percent), industrial and farm equipment (6.2 percent), telecommunications (7.5 percent), electronics and electrical equipment (10.8 percent), petroleum and pipelines (13.3 percent), miscellaneous services (14.4 percent), gas and electric utilities (14.4 percent), computers, office equipment, software and data (16.0 percent), and metals & metal products (17.4 percent).
•Not a single industry paid an effective tax rate of more than 29 percent, either for the entire three-year period or in any given year.
Within industries, effective tax rates also varied widely. For example, over the three-year period, average tax rates on oil companies ranged from 3.0 percent for Devon Energy up to 31.4 percent on Marathon Oil. Among aerospace and defense companies, three-year effective tax rates ranged from a low of -18.8 percent for Boeing up to a high of 25.0 percent for General Dynamics.