Corporate Taxes

Both conservative and “mainstream” media pundits, as well as candidates In the Republican primary debates, assert that U.S. corporations pay a 35% federal income tax rate, “one of the highest in the world.”  After the corporation pays this tax, it distributes dividends to its shareholders, who then pay tax on the dividend.  Capital gains and dividends are taxed at a lower 15% rate, resulting in a net tax of 50% federal tax on corporate profits.  In arguing for lower corporate tax rates and rationalizing the lower rate on dividends, conservatives ask should the federal government get half of corporate profits?

The federal government may get too much of profits but it is not 50%.  The international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated an effective tax rate of 27% in the years 2006 – 2009.  Sixty years of data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the corporate tax rate has declined markedly since World War 2. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

Using a three moving average highlights the downward trend.  For those in the Ronald Reagan cult, it may come as some surprise to see the “hump” in rates during the Reagan years.

Zooming in on the past ten years, we see an effective tax rate of 30% or less.  Some might explain that the lower average rate is due to smaller corporations who pay less than the 35% tax but IRS data shows that smaller companies who qualify for these lower rates make up less than 10% of corporate profits.

If companies had paid a 35% rate on their profits this past decade, what would they have paid?  Almost a trillion dollars extra in taxes.

When someone mentions the “35% corporate tax rate”, that is the statuatory rate, not the actual rate companies pay.   In 2009, the three year moving average rate had dropped to 21%.  That is a far cry from 35%.  We can have a discussion – or disagreement – about what a fair tax rate is for U.S. companies.  We should at least start that discussion from some realistic data.

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