The top tax bracket for U.S. corporations stands at 35 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. So how is it possible that a giant of American business, General Electric, paid nothing in federal taxes last year, even as it made billions in profit?
And should the CEO of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, be advising the president on business?
For two years, President Obama has been talking about the need for corporate tax reform, declaring that the system is too complicated and that companies pay too much.
"Simplify, eliminate loopholes, treat everybody fairly," Obama said in February.
For those unaccustomed to the loopholes and shelters of the corporate tax code, GE's success at avoiding taxes is nothing short of extraordinary. The company, led by Immelt, earned $14.2 billion in profits in 2010, but it paid not a penny in taxes because the bulk of those profits, some $9 billion, were offshore. In fact, GE got a $3.2 billion tax benefit.
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"Two things are disconcerting. One is, there's disproportionate amount of profits being reported offshore. And then, even for the profits that are reported onshore, they're paying less than 35 percent," said Martin Sullivan, a contributing editor for Tax Analysts.
2010 was the second year in a row that GE recorded billions in profits and paid no taxes.
During that same period, Immelt has been a close advisor to the president on the business community, a relationship that rubs some the wrong way. Immelt serves as the chairman of Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
In a statement, General Electric said that it "pays what it owes under the law and is scrupulous about its compliance with tax obligations in all jurisdictions." The company claims that its zero-dollar tax bill is largely a result of losses at its financial arm, GE Capital, due to the Wall Street meltdown.
Today, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the president is "bothered" by the idea that a U.S. company could pay no taxes, but he wouldn't talk about GE specifically. Carney was also quick to say that Immelt's council advises the president on job growth and not on tax policy.
"It is part of the problem of the corporate tax structure that companies hire, you know, armies of tax lawyers to understand how it works and to take advantage of the various loopholes that exist, that are legal in order to reduce their tax burden," Carney said.
When President Obama announced his decision to appoint Immelt to the unpaid advisory role on job creation in January, some critics wondered whether the move was appropriate. Under his leadership, GE laid off 21,000 American workers and closed 20 factories between 2007 and 2009. More than half of GE's workforce is now outside the United States.