Last month's Government Accountability Office finding that most corporations operating in the U.S. paid no income taxes from 1998 to 2005 omitted one crucial nugget of information: Which companies were the bunglers who did pay taxes during that time? Seriously, if you are a big-company CEO and can't figure out how to avoid forking over any dough to the IRS, you ought to be in jail. Given the availability of creative accounting tools and the tax collectors' relentless pursuit of deadbeat purveyors of soft-core spring break videos, payment of corporate income taxes constitutes a breach of fiduciary duties.
At the behest of two Democratic U.S. senators, the GAO studied the differences in tax liabilities between foreign-controlled domestic corporations and U.S.-controlled corporations. The lawmakers -- Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Carl Levin of Michigan -- are worried that companies may be abusing transfer pricing -- a perfectly legal mechanism that can be used to shift income from high-tax to low-tax jurisdictions.
According to the GAO, most companies get to zero taxes by reporting losses that completely offset profits. And that's why a third of the country's corporate chieftains look so bad: If there's one thing a CEO should be good at, it's losing money.
Shareholders have come to expect at least that minimum level of competence. The typical CEO gets paid eleventy-six gazillion dollars a year, flies around in a jet equipped with a gold-plated bowling alley and can use corporate funds to indulge his passion for collecting vintage lug nuts. He should at least have the decency to show some red ink on the bottom line. How hard is this?
Not very. And as the GAO notes, most chief executives are perfectly capable of avoiding profitability. The question is, what can be done about the significant minority who insist on feeding the voracious federal fisc by foolishly allowing their revenues to exceed their expenses?
First, these inveterate value-creators should be encouraged to go private. That's the most productive use of these otherwise irrational profits -- enriching buyout firms so they can go public and start losing money themselves. See, e.g., Blackstone Group LP.
For some reason, managers who generate profits draw a lot of attention. It's almost as if analysts and financial pundits believe that being "in the black" is "good." This misguided notion is dangerous. What will happen to those responsible CEOs who routinely post losses if the standard measure of financial success shifts from tax avoidance to actual financial success?
For one thing, they'll all get bigger bonuses. But they might feel a tad unloved. Which is why we must do more than keep the profit makers under wraps -- we need to more enthusiastically celebrate the money losers.
The usual rewards of success -- book deals, commemorative stamps, Cabinet posts -- are fine for tween pop stars. But CEOs who run their companies in the world's largest economy and still manage to steer clear of taxable income deserve something that more fully expresses the nation's gratitude: Put their names on provisions of the Internal Revenue Code that corporations employ to eliminate their tax liabilities. Instead of section this and paragraph that, lawyers and accountants would cite The Cayne Carry Forward, The Raines Recognition Rule and The Fuld Filing Extension. What better way to memorialize these heroic contributors to American prosperity?
And what better way to align public approbation with individual accomplishments? It's all about proper incentivization. Which would be a more lasting tribute -- a profitable, but tax-burdened Chrysler? Or The Nardelli NOL?
The answer is obvious.
While we're at it, let's heap a little shame on those executives who continue to make spectacles of themselves by earning profits and paying taxes. The IRS could film these debaucheries and produce a series of soft-core tax liability videos in which CEOs are coaxed into exposing their Ebitdas.
Who knows? The agency might even make a little money on the deal.
Nothing wrong with that.