WASHINGTON – As the first year of corporate tax reform winds down, the difficulty of measuring the impact of the biggest overhaul of the federal tax code in decades is sparking debates about who has benefited most.
Researchers generally agree that companies have spent much more on new shareholder initiatives than on workers and job creation since the tax bill cut the U.S. corporate tax by more than one-third. Some analysts even say the corporate tax windfall gave General Motors the cash to help it restructure, close plants and lay off U.S. employees.
All the while, a lack of public information about the details of corporate spending and the motives behind it cloud the picture and in some cases lead individual companies to push back against the ways they are being portrayed.
For example, Just Capital, a nonprofit research group that compares public desires for corporate spending against outlays of individual companies, says Best Buy has spent 14 percent of its tax reform windfall on workers and the remaining 86 percent on shareholders. Best Buy says Just Capital does not have the data to reach such a conclusion and says that the company’s tax savings have gone mostly to employees, the community and customers.
This standoff between a respectable research group and a major U.S. corporation reflects a national conundrum.
The January 2018 tax reform bill lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and allowed American companies a chance to book foreign profits facing high tax rates at a huge discount.
Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House and the Trump administration argued that the corporate savings would go to higher wages, capital expansion and job creation, not to stock buybacks or executive compensation.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) just published a study which found that “4 percent of public firms announced that they would pay some portion of tax savings toward workers” and 22 percent of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies said they would increase investments because of the tax bill. The NBER study noted a “general increase” in stock repurchases after tax reform, but said the increase was “extremely concentrated in a small number of firms.”
A Bloomberg analysis found stock buybacks on track for their best quarter in history after the tax bill passed. Bloomberg concluded that roughly 60 percent of corporate tax savings was going to shareholders with 15 percent going to employees.
Looking at the S&P 500, Morgan Stanley researchers concluded that “many companies are likely to earmark some of [tax] savings for capital expenditures, debt repayment and share buybacks,” but added that corporations “have been opaque about how they intend to use those savings.”
Just Capital was formed in 2013 to compare public expectations for corporate spending with actual spending. It publishes an annual ranking of the country’s 100 “most just” companies based on a variety of criteria, including pay, benefits and capital expenditures. The research group decided to separately study tax windfalls as a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Rob Du Boff, Just Capital’s corporate research director.
It found that most of the highly publicized employee bonuses announced in the wake of tax reform were one-time events. Meanwhile, using publicly reported data from Securities and Exchange Commission filings, other federal records, media reports and company announcements, Just Capital evaluated post-tax reform spending by 138 of the top 1,000 publicly traded U.S. companies which announced spending plans in 2018. Just Capital concluded that overall, 57 percent of the money was going to investors, with 6 percent going to existing workers and 18 percent going to job creation.
Just Capital ranks individual companies by percentages invested in workers, customers, community, jobs and shareholders. Any money not earmarked for the first four categories is classified as going to shareholders, Du Boff explained.
“The purpose is not to name and shame companies,” he said. “We want to show good actors.”
Just Capital’s research shows that Americans want the corporate tax reform windfall spent on workers and new jobs. Just Capital sends letters to CEOs of every company it rates seeking input, Du Boff said, because “there is not a lot of transparency around corporate spending.” The research group made a correction to its analysis of Best Buy’s spending of tax savings based on some information the company provided the Star Tribune, although the new rating still didn’t match how the company says it has spent its windfall thus far.
No other group in the country rates companies as Just Capital does, which can lead to controversy. Minneapolis-based Target Corp. garnered a top national rating by giving 100 percent of its tax savings to employees. Xcel Energy was mentioned favorably, though the utility is bound by law to pass all tax savings on to customers. Individual ratings for the other seven Minnesota-based companies on the Just Capital list led to several rebuttals.
A Best Buy statement said the company has spent 49 percent of its tax savings on workers, 13 percent on community and only 38 percent on shareholders. It offered proof.
TCF Bank challenged an estimate that it spent 3 percent on workers, 14 percent on community and 83 percent on shareholders.
“We do not believe the Just Capital analysis fully reflects the many initiatives we’ve put in place in 2018,” a spokesman said. He cited compensation and benefit increases, as well as a 16 percent pay increase for 1,500 “customer relationship team members” and a one-time bonus of $1,000 for 80 percent of full-time and part-time employees making less than $100,000.”
U.S. Bancorp, said by Just Capital to have spent 14 percent of tax savings on workers, 22 percent on community and 64 percent on shareholders, responded that it invested “tax reform savings to benefit all of our stakeholders, including our employees, customers, communities and shareholders. Just Capital’s data about U.S. Bank is inaccurate and incomplete.”
Bio-Techne said it gave much more than the 1 percent boost to employees than Just Capital credited to the company and “did not increase dividends to shareholders nor stock buybacks directly as a result of anticipated tax savings,” although Just Capital said it spent 99 percent of tax savings on shareholders.
This pushback is a natural response to the hype that accompanied the tax bill, according to Robert Willens, a managing director at Lehman Brothers for 20 years before starting his own tax and accounting service. Companies perceived to spend tax savings in ways that favor shareholders and executives over workers and customers could suffer “pretty severe reputational risk,” Willens said.
Corporate tax reform “was marketed in somewhat of a misleading way,” Willens told the Star Tribune. The president promised household income increases of $4,000 per year, along with new jobs, as a result of corporate tax reform. Yet the windfall came with no strings attached. As evidence, Willens pointed to General Motors’ plant closures and restructuring, which he said were made possible in part with extra revenue received from corporate tax reform.
Eric Toder, who coordinates the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington, said it will be hard to decipher the reasons for corporate spending by individual corporations.
“Companies may have had an investment plan in place before tax reform,” he said. Or they may choose not to reveal the details and motives for spending.
Public disclosures and explanations of spending vary from company to company. Nor are corporations required to say why they spend their money as they do. The NBER study found that while 173 companies announced stock buybacks in the first quarter of 2018, only nine attributed that shareholder enrichment to tax savings.
No matter how companies choose to invest the extra cash they get from tax reform, it likely will be years before the country understands the economic implications, Toder noted.
At any rate, stock buybacks and executive compensation may eventually accrue to Americans’ benefit in a “circuitous” way, Willens added. They “are not inherently evil and bad,” he said.
Rather, he noted, the lesson of the current corporate tax reform is “if you want to make sure a windfall is spent in a certain way, you need rules and goals.”