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Confidential to The New York Times: GE’s 2010 Tax Return Isn’t Finished Yet

Remember that New York Times story that put the universe on notice that General Electric made truckloads of money and ended up with a $3.2 billion “tax benefit”? It also mentioned that their tax department is known as the “best tax law firm” and is staffed with a small army of former Treasury whiz-kids and turbo-tax nerds to legally minimize the company’s tax obligation. The story got all sorts of people worked up from Jon Stewart to Henry Blodget and it whipped up a small amount of hysteria amongst the masses who had the courage to read an esoteric tax article that went on for more than one page.

Today a new report from ProPublica (a rebuttal of sorts, since they got scooped by the Times) is “Setting The Record Straight on GE’s Taxes“:

Did GE get a $3.2 billion tax refund? No.

Did GE pay U.S. income taxes in 2010? Yes, it paid estimated taxes for 2010, and also made payments for previous years. Think of it as your having paid withholding taxes on your salary in 2010, and sending the IRS a check on April 15, 2010, covering your balance owed for 2009.

Will GE ultimately pay U.S. income taxes for 2010? After much to-ing and fro-ing — the company says it hasn’t completed its 2010 tax return — GE now says that it will pay tax.

Also, part of the ProPublica report clarifies that the whole “financial reporting vs. tax reporting” thing:

GE’s 2010 financial statements reported a $3.25 billion U.S. “current tax benefit,” which is where the Times, which declined comment, got its $3.2 billion “tax benefit” number. But a company’s “current tax” number has nothing to do with what it actually pays in taxes for a given year. “Current tax benefit” and “current tax expense” are so-called financial reporting numbers, used to calculate the profits a company reports to shareholders.

In other words, the Times left out the tricky stuff or maybe just didn’t a bang-up job explaining the tricky stuff. But framing the shrewd tax planning and lobbyists working for a giant corporation is far more provocative than book-tax differences and defining deferred tax assets. Relevancy be damned!

Setting The Record Straight on GE’s Taxes [ProPublica]
Also see: GE and the power of iterative journalism [Felix Salmon/Reuters]

The New York Times Takes the Big 4’s Work-Life Balance Bait

Late(r) on Friday, the New York Times published an article championing the accounting firms for their commitment to providing a flexible work arrangements for its employees. The article, as you would expect from the Times, provides numerous examples of how the policies of the Big 4 and other major accounting firms make life extra-peachy for their employees.

The article leads off with none other than a firm who has been in desperate need for good press:

As the peak season for the nation’s accounting firms begins, David Leeds’s team at Ernst & Young is once again bracing for two months of 60-hour weeks auditajor bank in Atlanta.

In years past, those grueling weeks often fueled nasty marital spats about missed dinners and children’s tantrums over forgotten basketball games.

Not any more. At Ernst & Young, as at the nation’s other major accounting firms, workplace flexibility has been built into the culture — even during crunch time. [our emphasis]

Every Monday morning, the 15 people on Mr. Leeds’s team meet and lay out the personal commitments that might interfere with work — basketball games, teacher conferences, Pilates classes, weddings. They arrange to cover for each other, helping make the busy season tolerable for everyone. Despite the auditing team’s six-day weeks, one Auburn University graduate, for example, is taking next Monday and Tuesday off to see the school’s football team play in the national championship bowl in Arizona. And Mr. Leeds plans to escape to New Orleans for three days to see his daughter run a marathon.

“We face very tight deadlines from our clients, but at the same time we try to make sure that team members have the flexibility they need,” said Mr. Leeds, a partner at the firm.

Parent-teacher conferences! Pilates! The Bowl Championship Series! From the sounds of it, you’d think being the an E&Y partner on a banking client was like whistling dixie (in Atlanta anyway). We’ll give this Atlanta team the benefit of the doubt (unless someone wants to email us with a different story) but the Times gives you the impression that the gambit of the industry is sympathetic to your family time and college gridiron road trip ambitions. Even during busy season. More untrue, this could not be.

We could go on with anecdotes about a senior manager’s spouse being in the hospital or the lack of flexibility given to a single dad OR not allowing someone to scoot out an hour early to see their girlfriend because she’s in from out of town but that really isn’t necessary. Examples such as those are simply provide you with a the spectrum of firms being at their absolute worst. What about the lion share of employees at these firms? Chances are, if you walked over to 5 Times Square and pulled aside the first person you saw with a E&Y backpack, they’d tell you that they are preparing to be sleep deprived for the next three months and if you told them they would get a dozen days off in that time frame, they’d be thrilled. Furthermore, if you were ask them if their partner had weekly meetings to ensure that everyone’s extracurricular activities were being respected, they’d look at you like you had three heads.

We won’t dismiss the firms’ efforts entirely because as we said, the Times cited several examples of employees who have taken advantage of the flexible schedules but the article is full of the rhetoric candidates and employees hear regularly when it comes to work-life balance. The best example being one of the last quotes from E&Y partner Brooke Sikes, who is out of Dallas:

“The firm very much rewards you for your performance,” she said. “It’s not about punching a clock. It’s not about face time.”

Not really much needs to be said. Reactions to this statement and any other thoughts on the current work-life efforts by your firm are welcome at this time.

Flex Time Flourishes in Accounting Industry [NYT]