Biggest Corporate Tax Cheats, From General Electric to Google to News Corp.

As GE continues to draw criticism for avoiding U.S. taxes, The Daily Beast looks at other corporations, from Google to News Corp., that have creatively kept billions from Uncle Sam.

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As reported Friday, General Electric concluded 2010 with $14.2 billion in profit, for which the Internal Revenue Service is paying them a tax benefit of $3.2 billion, thanks to a shrewd use of U.S. tax loopholes, aggressive lobbying and favorable international tax provisions. They’re far from alone.

Gallery: 15 Major Corporate Tax Dodgers

“Companies are becoming much more sophisticated in the way they arbitrage the U.S. tax system,” says Howard Gleckman, a resident fellow at The Urban Institute, which analyzes economic issues in the U.S. “GE is not the only one, there are many other companies doing the same thing.”

Last year, Google reduced its tax burden by $3.1 billion by altering its tax practices. Boeing hasn’t paid any federal corporate income taxes in the last three years, despite earning $10 billion in domestic pre-tax profit. Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Forest Laboratories habitually avoid paying U.S. income taxes by recording profits in a country a world away from where the sales occur. (For reference, interactive explanations of the tax strategies of Google and GE can be found here and here.) A study released in 2008 by the Government Accountability Office concluded that 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the country paid “ no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.”

“Companies don’t even have to be creative,” says Robert Willens, a taxation professor at Columbia Business School. “All they have to do is attribute or ascribe as much income as possible to foreign subsidiaries.” Companies register their intangible assets—intellectual property, for example—and income outside of the U.S. and register their liabilities and expenses in the U.S. to effectually reduce their taxable domestic income. Ireland and the Caribbean Islands are common tax havens.

“It doesn’t matter where your corporate headquarters is. If you’re Google, your income is I.P.… the patents aren’t registered in the U.S. For drug companies, the income is earned to their Irish subsidiary,” says Gleckman. “When you say that a company is in the U.S., I don’t exactly know what that means.”

Critics argue that the avoidance of corporate income tax hurts the economy and hampers domestic investment and job creation, but defenders of the practices argue it’s the only way their companies can stay competitive on a global scale as the American corporate tax rate of 35 percent is one of the highest in the world. (The average effective corporate tax rate is closer to 25 percent.) This month, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced his desire to cut the top tax rate for corporations and individuals to 25 percent, but it remains unclear where the revenue to support such a change would come from.

“GE is a symptom of a much bigger problem and GE management uses the tax code for their benefit,” says Gleckman. “I’m not offended by GE, I’m offended by a tax system that allows this to go on. They have an obligation to their shareholders and their workers to maximize after-tax profits.”

Of course, the irony is that GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt is the same person Barack Obama appointed to head the panel of external economic advisers created in 2009 to help steer the U.S. out of the economic crisis. Says Willens, “When [Immelt] was appointed to that position, people who had familiarity with GE’s tax practices had a good laugh, which are rare for tax professionals.”

In highlighting 15 of the major corporate tax dodgers, The Daily Beast focused on the largest American companies, as well as ones that are notorious in accounting circles for consistency in doing whatever they can to minimize their U.S. tax liability.