Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Corporations And The General Welfare

There is general agreement that the economy is not growing fast enough to boost employment.  The question: What to do about it?

The response, at all levels of government, seems to be: increase corporate subsidies and lower corporate taxes in hopes that corporations will boost investment and, by extension, employment.  Those who promote this response no doubt reason that corporations must be struggling along with workers and need additional incentives and support to become successful “job-creators.”

The chart below, taken from a Paul Krugman blog post, certainly raises questions about this rationale and response.  It shows trends in corporate profits (in red) and business investment (in blue), both measured as shares of GDP.

Profits and Investment

As you can see, profits have clearly been trending upwards over time, especially during our current recovery.  At the same time, business investment, although improving, remains historically quite low.  It is hard to see a poor profit performance as the root cause of our slow growth and job creation.

Moreover, banks are sitting on record amounts of money.  The chart below, from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, shows that banks are holding approximately $1.5 trillion in excess reserves.  In the past, excess reserves averaged roughly $20 billion.  In other words, our banks just aren’t motivated to make loans.  And, instead of taxing these excess reserves to encourage loan activity, the Federal Reserve is actually paying the banks interest on their holdings.

EXCRESNS_Max_630_378

Now, as noted above, it would not be fair to say that governments are not actively trying to create jobs.  It is just that they are going about it in the wrong way, the wrong way that is, if their aim is to actually create jobs.

Governments continue to shovel huge subsidies and tax breaks at our major corporations.  This, despite the fact that most studies find little evidence that they help promote investment or employment.  What they do, of course, is enhance corporate profits.  They also force cutbacks in public spending, which does have negative effects on the economy and social welfare.  Ironically, these negative effects then cause corporations to shy away from investing.

The New York Times recently ran a good series on state and local tax deals and subsidies written by Louise Story.  She wrote:

A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.

The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid. . . .

A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.

These subsidies can dominate state budgets.  The Times reports that they were equal to approximately one-third the budgets of Oklahoma and West Virginia and almost one-fifth of the budget of Maine.

Here in Oregon, we continue to struggle with budget shortfalls.  And, fearful of losing corporate investment, the state legislature is doing what it can to keep corporate costs down.  In December 2012, Governor John Kitzhaber called the state legislature into special session to pass a bill specially designed to help Nike.

Nike had privately told the Governor that it planned to spend at least $150 million in an expansion which it claimed would create at least 500 jobs over a five year span.  If the state wanted that expansion and those jobs to be in Oregon, it had to reassure the company that its current favorable tax treatment would remain unchanged far into the future.

Although state legislators were not pleased to be presented with a major tax bill with little if any time to study its terms, they passed it.  The new bill guarantees Nike that the state of Oregon will not change how it calculates the company’s state taxes for the next 30 years, regardless of any future changes in the state’s tax policy.  More specifically, it gives the Governor power to offer such a deal to any major company that plans to invest at least $150 million and create at least 500 jobs over a five year span.  It just so happened that Nike is the only company, at least for the moment, receiving this benefit.

To appreciate what is at stake in this deal a little background on how Oregon taxes multi-state corporations like Nike is helpful.  Prior to 1991, Oregon taxed Nike using a formula that considered the state’s share of Nike’s total property, payroll, and sales, with each weighted equally.  In 1991, Oregon double weighted the sales component.  This greatly reduced Nike’s state tax bill, since while its property and payroll are concentrated in Oregon, only a small share of its sales are made in the state.

Then in 2001, Oregon began introducing a “single-sales factor” formula.  As Michael Leachman of the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:

Under this formula, only in-state sales relative to all US sales matter in determining how much of a company’s profits are apportioned to and thus taxable by Oregon; it doesn’t matter how much of their property or payroll is based in Oregon. The Legislative Assembly in 2005 cut short the phase-in process and fully phased-in the “single-sales” formula for tax years starting on or after July 1, 2005.

The Oregon Department of Revenue estimates that using the single-sales factor formula instead of the double-weighted sales formula is costing Oregon $77.6 million in the current 2005-07 budget cycle, and will cost another $65.6 million in the upcoming 2007-09 budget cycle. The projected decline in the cost of “single-sales” in the upcoming budget cycle is temporary. It is due primarily to a corporate kicker that will slash corporate tax payments by two-thirds this year. In subsequent budget cycles, the revenue hit from “single-sales” will return to a higher level. . . .

Take Nike, for example. Nike lobbied for the switch to single-sales factor apportionment and it’s easy to see why. At the Oregon Center for Public Policy, we conservatively estimate that Nike’s 2006 tax cut from “single-sales” was over $16 million. Other prominent, profitable firms such as Intel also received a massive tax break from “single-sales.”

As Michael Munk points out:

The governor’s deal is also particularly cynical when at a time of declining public services desperate politicians are dragging out a regressive sales tax out of mothballs and The Oregonian’s “fact checker finds “mostly true” a finding that Oregon’s existing tax breaks (including almost $900B a year in corporate welfare) exceed tax collections.

Of course, this stance towards the needs of Oregonians is nothing new for Nike.  In 2010, Oregonians voted in favor of two measures (66 and 67) which temporarily raised taxes on the very wealthy and corporations.  Phil Knight, the Nike CEO, not only gave $100,000 to the anti-Measures campaign, he also wrote an article published in the Oregonian newspaper in which he said:

Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law II.

They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself.

They are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian, and most ironically, in the long run, they will deprive the state of tax revenue, not increase it.

The current state tax codes are all of those things as well. Measures 66 and 67 just take it up and over the top.

Knight even threatened to leave the state.  He didn’t, but I guess the last laugh is his, now that his company’s tax situation is secure for the next 30 years.

So—what lies ahead—more counterproductive state policies and head scratching about why things are going poorly for working people, or a change in strategy?

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