This tax season will be kind to Bank of America and Wells Fargo: It appears that neither bank will have to pay federal income taxes for 2009.
Bank of America probably won't pay federal taxes because it lost money in the U.S. for the year. Wells Fargo was profitable, but can write down its tax bill because of losses at Wachovia, which it rescued from a near collapse.
The idea of the country's No. 1 and No. 4 banks not paying federal income taxes may be anathema to millions of Americans who are grumbling as they fill out their own tax forms this month. But tax experts say the banks' situation is hardly unique.
"Oh, yeah, this happens all the time," said Robert Willens, an expert on tax accounting who runs a New York firm with the same name. "Especially now, with companies suffering such severe losses."
Bob McIntyre, at Citizens for Tax Justice, said he opposes the government giving corporations such a break.
"If you go out and try to make money and you don't do it, why should the government pay you for your losses?" McIntyre said. "It's as simple as that."
For 2009, Bank of America netted a $2.3 billion benefit related to income taxes, according to its annual report: It had a benefit of $3.6 billion from the federal government, and an expense of $1.3 billion that it paid to different state and foreign governments.
It's not unusual for a company's debt to the federal government to vary widely from its debt to state governments, as appears to be the case with Bank of America, said Douglas Shackelford, a tax professor at UNC Chapel Hill.
The federal government often offers more tax deductions than the states; for example, Bank of America wrote down its federal taxable income with credits from low-income housing and losses on foreign subsidiary stock.
Company tax returns aren't public, so it's difficult to say for certain how much a company pays to, or receives from, tax coffers in any year .
The bank's $3.6 billion current federal tax benefit for 2009 came in a year when it lost $1 billion in the U.S., according to its latest annual report. For the previous year, when the bank had profits of $3.3 billion in the U.S., it listed a current federal tax expense of $5.1 billion.
Wells Fargo was profitable in 2009, with $8 billion in earnings applicable to common shareholders. But its tax payments were reduced because of Wachovia's losses.
Wells netted an overall tax benefit of $4.1 billion in 2009. It got a benefit worth nearly $4 billion from the federal government, and another worth $334 million from state governments. It had an expense of $164 million in foreign taxes. Wells did record an overall income tax expense of $5.3 billion, but that was offset by the tax benefits of the Wachovia losses.
Tax breaks and stimulus
The topic of corporate tax breaks has gained buzz recently because of a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill, which allows companies to "carry back" their losses for 2008 and 2009 to the previous five years, instead of just the previous two years. Homebuilders and other industries that suffered big losses in 2008 and 2009, but made a lot of money in the years before that, stand to gain billions in refunds. However, the stimulus bill provision does not apply for Bank of America and Wells Fargo, because companies that received TARP loans are ineligible.
UNC's Shackelford said the argument for carrybacks stems from the belief that it's "arbitrary" that taxes are collected on an annual basis.
"There's no reason we couldn't collect them on a monthly basis or a two-year basis. Then your losses and gains would be offset over the period," he said. "The carryback enables you to not be penalized because your losses got bunched in a different year from your gains."
The stimulus bill provision, he said, was helped by business lobbying. "There's an awful lot of companies that paid a lot of taxes in the 2004 period, then they lost a lot of money, and they went to their legislators and said, 'Please help us,'" Shackelford said.
McIntyre, at Citizens for Tax Justice, co-authored a report in 2004 related to carrybacks, after the Bush administration expanded many corporate tax breaks. The report examined 275 of the country's largest companies and found that nearly one-third paid no federal income taxes in at least one year from 2001 to 2003. The companies overall were profitable in those years, but took advantage of tax breaks.
"If you or I lose money in the stock market, we don't get to carry back our losses to any significant degree," said McIntyre. His group works on closing tax breaks for corporations.
"Getting a refund from the past, that's just weird," he added.