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A headline in a publication read widely by tax experts (subscription only) this morning screamed “PwC Study: Effective Corporate Tax Rate Topped Statutory Rate From 2004 to 2010.”
The actual report, which was published in a rival publication this week (subscription only), provides three different ways of measuring effective corporate tax rates, and only one tells us anything about how our corporate tax system is working. That measure — the percentage of worldwide profits paid in worldwide taxes for corporations that were profitable from 2008 through 2010, was 22 percent, the study concludes.
This is not surprising at all. CTJ’s study of most of the Fortune 500 corporations that were consistently profitable from 2008 through 2010 found their effective U.S. federal corporate income tax rate on their U.S. profits to be 18.5 percent over that period. The PwC study finds that worldwide profits (not just U.S. profits) were subject to worldwide taxes (including U.S. federal and state taxes plus foreign taxes) of 22 percent.
These two findings are entirely compatible. The effective worldwide tax rate can be expected to be slightly higher than the effective U.S. tax rate that CTJ calculated because the CTJ study also found most of the corporations to pay higher taxes in the other countries where they did business, and because the worldwide rate includes state corporate taxes.
However, PwC’s report also includes two other, odd measures of corporate tax rates that are irrelevant to the policy debate, and tries to get reporters to focus on these irrelevant figures. One includes companies whether they were profitable are not in the years examined. Of course, corporations that are not profitable are not expected to pay the corporate income tax, which is a tax on profits. But including corporations with losses reduces the total amount of profits and makes the effective tax rate (taxes as a percentage of profits) appear much larger.
Another irrelevant measure used by the PwC study includes all corporations with positive taxable income. This measure leaves out corporations that actually are profitable but avoid taxes because of breaks (like depreciation breaks) that reduce their taxable income to below zero. This measure simply excludes the corporations that are most effective at dodging taxes.
The author of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, Andrew Lyon, was called out by CTJ in 2011 for a report he wrote for the Business Roundtable claiming that U.S. corporations pay higher effective tax rates than corporations of other countries. It appears that this time around, his better angel compelled him to include a straightforward, relevant statistic even while he tries to divert readers’ attention to his report’s other, meaningless findings.