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Looking for Cheats in Corporate Tax Filings: A Descent into the Circles of Hell

When Dante descended into the Inferno, guided by Virgil, he passed through Circles of Gluttony and Greed, and of Heresy and Fraud and Treachery.

The modern-day version is the corporate tax filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Navigation through the hellish form is fraught with anguish and pain and bewilderment, causing the visitor to beg for release from its devilish grasp, to shudder when recalling the sign at the entrance: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

The Circle of Betrayal: Big Profits Overseas, Big Losses in the U.S.

Bank of America, Citigroup, and Pfizer can be found here. In the last two years each one of them made much of their revenue in the U.S., but they claimed billions of dollars in foreign profits and billions of dollars in U.S. losses.

Here are the sordid details:

Citigroup, whose 2005 "Plutonomy Memo" said that "the World is dividing into two blocs - the Plutonomy and the rest," had 42% of its 2011-12 revenue in North America (almost all U.S.) but declared a $5 billion U.S. loss and a $28 billion foreign profit.

Pfizer had 40% of its 2011-12 revenues in the U.S., but declared almost $7 billion in U.S. losses to go along with $31 billion in foreign profits. After the SEC questioned Pfizer in 2012 about four straight years of U.S. losses despite large worldwide incomes, the company went ahead and declared a fifth straight U.S. loss.

Bank of America may be the worst. CEO Brian Moynihan once lamented that nobody understood "how much good" his employees do. But his company, with a whopping 82% of its 2011-12 revenue in the U.S., declared $7 billion in U.S. losses and $10 billion in foreign profits.

Circles of Duplicity and Disdain

This is where Dante might have seen the shadowy image of a human face on the body of a venomous barb-tailed dragon. These are companies with US-declared 2011-12 incomes that appear to fall far short of a reasonable amount based on their usage of U.S. resources and privileges.

Abbott Labs had 42% of its sales in the U.S., but declared a loss in the U.S. along with $12 billion in foreign profits.
Baxter Labs had about 40% of its sales and assets in the U.S., but only 14% of its declared income.
Cisco had 50% of its sales in the U.S., but just 25% of its income.
Dell, with about a 50-50 split in US/foreign revenue, declared only 12% of its profits in the US.
Dow had 32% of its sales in the U.S., but declared a U.S. loss against foreign profits of over $5 billion.
DuPont listed 38% of sales and 67% of property in the U.S., but only 20% of income.
Honeywell had almost 60% of sales in US, but only 34% of its income.
Johnson & Johnson declared 44% of its sales and over half of its long-lived assets in the U.S., but only 32% of its income.
Microsoft claimed over half its sales in the US, but only about 20% of its income.

Circles of Petroleum and Power and Pollution and Pomposity

Exxon has about 39% of its employees, 33% of its sales, 40% of its long-lived assets, and 70-90% of its productive oil and gas wells in the U.S., yet declares only 15% of its income as earned here. The company pays only 2.2% of its total income in U.S. taxes.

Chevron is no better, with "Operable Capacity" and the number of gas stations about equally divided between the U.S. and international sites. About 75% of its oil and gas wells and 90% of its pipeline mileage are in the United States. Yet the company claims only 20% of its income in the U.S., and pays only 3.8% of its total income in U.S. taxes.

General Electric, notorious for its non-payment of taxes, has almost half of its employees and income in the U.S., but paid over four times as much foreign tax as U.S. tax.

Circles of Gibberish

In order to track down tax avoiders, the traveler must trudge through corporate tax filing Limbo, an underworld of jargon and drivel and legalese. Among the most incomprehensible findings are these:

Exxon uses something called a "theoretical tax" to account for almost 90% of its income tax bill. 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.."

Berkshire Hathaway declares "hypothetical amounts" to write off its tax bill.

IBM, apparently without a computing device, contends that "Quantification of the deferred [unrepatriated] tax not practicable."

Comcast says, "From time to time, we engage in transactions in which the tax consequences may be subject to uncertainty. In these cases, we evaluate our tax positions using the recognition threshold and the measurement attribute in accordance with the accounting guidance related to uncertain tax positions."

Even Lucifer had to laugh.

The Path to Paradise

The Bureau of Economic Analysis notes that U.S. employment accounted for 68 percent of total worldwide employment in 2010, and that sales by U.S. parent companies in 2010 were almost twice the amount of majority-owned foreign affiliates. Yet 100 of the largest Fortune 500 companies claimed only 44% of their collective income in the U.S., and paid only 10.5% of their total income in federal taxes.

Despite this betrayal of the American people, neoliberals insist on even less taxes and less regulation and less government. They apparently believe in the words of Dante: "The path to paradise begins in hell." 

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit

screen_shot_2017-01-23_at_8.39.57_am.pngPaul Buchheit is an advocate for social and economic justice, and the author of numerous papers on economic inequality and cognitive science. He was recently named one of 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models. He is the author of "Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income" (2017). Contact email: paul (at)

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