Last week, the New York Times raised quite a kerfuffle over corporate tax loopholes in the United States, particularly that of General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE). The company, which is one of the largest and most iconic of the world, generated over $14 billion in profits worldwide and about $5 billion in the U.S. alone. Yet, despite that, GE paid virtually no federal taxes due in large part to strategic lobbying and significant investments in an imaginative in-house tax team led by former government officials.
The revelation that not only did GE pay no federal taxes over the last two years, but also claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion has angered many. Some may even wonder why taxpayers were forced to absorb all the company's risks in 2008--when the FDIC insured almost $140 billion of debt issued by GE's risky finance arm--yet get nothing back in return now that the company has stabilized and generating profits again. GE, for the record, has issued its own responses in hopes to defend itself.
Even President Barack Obama is catching some heat from this news because of his connection with GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt. In January, Obama named Immelt as his top adviser of the Jobs and Competitiveness Council. Which is ironic, since GE has been criticized for cutting U.S. jobs and moving them overseas to reduce costs.
Short-Term Shareholder Value
It's a pretty simple calculation. The more profits a corporation gets to keep without having to pay taxes, the more return it can generate for its shareholders. Whether they're paying dividends, stock buyback or reinvesting into their own operations, less taxes means more money to reward shareholders. But are these returns too shortsighted? What happens when those tax loopholes are closed? As noted in the Times article, critics of corporate tax shelters cite that this kind of "welfare" is shortchanging the Treasury and hurting the U.S. economy by discouraging investment and hiring.
More importantly, American institutions such as GE have prided themselves as innovative creators and providers of products and services that benefit the overall good, and at the same time creating jobs and return for shareholders. But if these companies are investing this much time and money trying to find tax loopholes, lobbying regulators, cutting costs and jobs all in the name of creating short-term returns for investors, it makes you wonder if their long-term outlook and priorities are in the right place.
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