August 13, 2022

Tax benefits are not refunds

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]