Who's #2 in Tax Avoidance? How About Exxon?
The nicest man I ever met worked behind the counter of the towing company that hauled away my car and charged me two days pay to get it back. I went in ranting mad, but the man was so understanding and sympathetic that I almost thanked him for taking good care of my car.
I had the same feeling the other day when an Exxon executive contacted me about an alleged error on our PayUpNow.org website. He cordially informed us that his company had paid a lot of taxes in 2009. The timing of his message was opportune, as PayUpNow.org was just completing an analysis of the worst federal income tax avoiders, and we didn't want to make any mistakes.
General Electric had earned the #1 spot, of course. Not only did they receive a $3.2 billion refund on $14 billion in pre-tax profit, but they wouldn't admit it. "G.E. is committed to acting with integrity in relation to our tax obligations," said Anne Eisele, a company spokeswoman. About the 2010 controversy she remarked, "GE did not pay US federal taxes last year because we did not owe any".
That is real hubris, worthy of #1.
So now we were occupied with the search for #2. Three factors were considered:
-- the amount of tax not paid
-- the percentage of tax not paid
-- the audacity with which the tax was not paid
Many good candidates came to our attention, because of their consistent and obvious tax avoidance. Verizon and Boeing and Dow and DuPont all made profits three years in a row, but all paid zero taxes over the three-year period. Banking leaders Citigroup and Bank of America, with a combined $8 billion of pretax earnings in 2009 and 2010, each paid zero taxes two years in a row. From 2008 to 2010, Chevron paid less than 5% a year. Merck paid 5%. Hewlett-Packard 3%. IBM 2%. Carnival 1%.
But Exxon seemed to have it all, with the nation's highest pre-tax earnings three years in a row, a 2% federal income tax payment rate, and an unapologetic attitude comparable to that of GE.
Then the friendly executive called and muddled the issue. We reviewed our data, which seemed accurate, but any hint of discrepancy demanded a revisiting of the facts.
We returned to late 2010. In a speech on the Senate floor on November 30, Bernie Sanders said: "Last year, ExxonMobil made $19 billion in profit. Guess what. They paid zero in taxes. They got a $156 million refund from the IRS." The "truth in politics" Politifact group took Senator Sanders to task, explaining, through an Exxon spokesman, that the 2009 tax was low because the company had overpaid its 2008 taxes.
But according to Exxon's 10-K form, they paid less than 4% in federal income taxes in 2008.
The company spokesman told PolitiFact that the "U.S. income tax expense for 2009 activities was approximately $500 million."
Even if that's true, it amounts to a 1.5% federal income tax rate for 2009.
Exxon's rise to the #2 tax avoidance spot behind GE was clinched on December 14, 2010, when a company publication boldly announced "ExxonMobil is a leading U.S. taxpayer." The article included the statement "..any claim we don’t pay taxes is absurd."
Somewhat befuddled, we moved on to 2010 taxes. A February, 2011 report entitled "Taking a look at our 10-K," and authored by Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil's vice president of public and government affairs, stated: "In 2010, our total taxes and duties to the U.S. government and its subdivisions exceeded $9.8 billion, including more than $1.6 billion in income tax expense...U.S. oil and gas companies shoulder a significantly higher tax burden than other industries."
Well, Ken, according to your 10-K only $1.27 billion was paid in federal income tax. That's a 2.3% rate.
Your total avoided tax over three years (based on a 35% rate) was MORE THAN THE TOTAL INCOME of all but two companies (Microsoft and Walmart).
And your 2010 financial report also shows a 'theoretical tax' of $18,536, 85% of its "Total income tax expense" of $21,561. Here's what The Economist says about theoretical taxes: "Companies have two versions of the truth: the theoretical tax bill, calculated using accounting profits..and the actual cash tax they pay...If a company is systematically avoiding tax, the cash payments are often much lower than the theoretical ones."
Congratulations, gentle executives of Exxon, you're a close second to GE. Maybe next year you'll reach the top by hitting bottom on your taxes.