As Senator Max Baucus and Congressman Dave Camp, the chairmen of the tax committees in the Senate and House, took their tax reform road show to the FedEx headquarters in Memphis last week, CTJ released a short report and op-ed concluding that the company had paid just 4.2 percent of its profits over the previous five years in federal corporate income taxes. FedEx’s Corporate Vice President for Tax, Michael D. Fryt, responded with an op-ed of his own (subscription required) that took issue with CTJ but avoided the actual issue raised.
The stakes are high for FedEx when it comes to tax reform. The company’s CEO has called for a lower federal corporate income tax rate and a “territorial” tax system (a tax system that exempts the offshore profits of corporations). FedEx is participating in several coalitions of corporations lobbying to achieve these goals.
The debate before Congress, (which Baucus and Camp are trying to move in a certain direction) is over how to reform the federal corporate income tax, so CTJ’s report and op-ed examined what FedEx pays in federal corporate income taxes as a percentage of its profits. That is FedEx’s effective federal corporate income tax rate, 4.2 percent.
Fryt’s op-ed attempts to confuse the issue by discussing other taxes, like state and local sales taxes, which the corporation does not even pay. A company like FedEx merely collects sales taxes from customers, who do pay them, and then hands the taxes over to whatever state or local government they are owed to.
Fryt goes on to say that FedEx’s effective tax rate was “36.4 percent in 2013, 35.3 percent in 2012, 35.9 percent in 2011, 37.5 percent in 2010 and 85.6 percent in 2009.” These ludicrous assertions are based on accounting practices and gimmicks that corporations like FedEx use when they make their reports to the SEC, but that obscure what they actually pay in taxes.
These figures include taxes paid to other governments as well as deferred taxes — taxes that FedEx has not actually paid but which it might pay at some point in the future. We believe reasonable people would agree that if we want to understand what a corporation pays in federal corporate income taxes as a percentage of profits over certain years, we should divide the federal corporate income taxes actually paid by the company by the profits actually generated by the company.
Fryt then seems to admit that FedEx’s taxes were low during the years we examine, but then explains that this is because of temporary tax breaks for “accelerated depreciation.” Such breaks allow a company to deduct the cost of equipment much more quickly than it actually wears out, and are the reason FedEx can “defer” a lot of its taxes. Fryt argues that there is broad consensus that such breaks create jobs, but this is actually not true.
The non-partisan Congressional Research Service recently reviewed efforts to quantify the impact of these tax breaks and found that “the studies concluded that accelerated depreciation in general is a relatively ineffective tool for stimulating the economy.” Further, we worry that this break is not truly “temporary” because Congress will keep extending it. Bonus depreciation was enacted in 2002 and has only been allowed to expire for two years, 2006 and 2007, since then.
None of this is to say that there is something immoral or evil about FedEx’s corporate tax practices. Members of Congress are responsible for the tax laws, which FedEx is following as far as we know. Of course, FedEx is lobbying to preserve and even expand its breaks, and it is unsurprising that it manipulates facts and figures to further its goals.