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For those concerned with the fate of our corporate tax code, perhaps the most important organization to watch right now is the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). While not well-known to those outside the accounting profession, FASB plays a critical role as the organization that sets the standards for what appears in corporate financial statements. What makes this role so important to the corporate tax debate is that FASB can require corporations to disclose information about the tax rates they pay in the U.S. and abroad—and is currently reevaluating its tax disclosure requirements.
One of the fundamental problems with the debate around our country’s corporate tax code is the lack of transparency on exactly how much companies are paying in taxes and how they structure their offshore operations. To the extent that this data is available, it comes in the form of companies’ publicly disclosed financial statements. For their part, Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) rely heavily for these reports to estimate the effective tax rates of different companies or estimate how much companies may owe in taxes on their offshore income. While these reports provide critical insights into our corporate tax code, they are only as good as the data that financial statements provide and unfortunately this data is lacking in a number of important ways.
As an example, one of the biggest information gaps in current financial statements is that the overwhelming majority of companies with offshore earnings fail to report how much they would owe in taxes if they were to repatriate these earnings back to the United States. In fact, out of the 298 Fortune 500 companies that report offshore earnings, only 58 companies disclose how much in taxes they would owe on this money on repatriation. This incomplete disclosure makes it difficult for lawmakers and the public to assess the extent to which companies are holding these earnings in tax havens to avoid U.S. taxes.
For the past few years, FASB has undertaken a wholesale overhaul of its disclosure requirements in order to make them more effective. Recognizing many of the problems with income tax disclosures, FASB recently proposed draft rules expanding the disclosure of income tax information and related information. While the changes FASB is proposing are helpful, in a comment letter to FASB sent today, ITEP called on the board to use this disclosure review process to bring complete transparency to company filing by requiring them to publicly disclose basic tax and financial data on a country-by-country basis.
If FASB required companies to disclose their income, revenues, assets and income tax paid on a country-by-country basis, this information would reset the corporate tax debate by providing a more complete picture of the operations and tax status of our nation’s corporations. The public would be able to see more clearly the extent to which the nation’s largest companies are engaging in tax avoidance. With this information in hand, the public and their representatives could make a better informed decision about the ways in which our corporate tax code needs to be reformed.
Even minor expansions to the current disclosure rules could prove important to the corporate tax debate. For example, FASB proposes to require companies to report their income taxes paid both in the United States and abroad. This information would better inform the debate on the corporate tax code by allowing the public access to a second measure of companies’ domestic effective tax rate.
While the work of FASB is often unappreciated, its decisions over the next few months will have important implications for our understanding of the corporate tax code and the reforms that it needs. Hopefully, FASB’s work will add greater transparency to the murky corporate tax debate.