The United States may soon wind up with a distinction that makes business leaders cringe — the highest corporate tax rate in the world.
Topping out at 35 percent, America’s official corporate income tax rate trails that of only Japan, at 39.5 percent, which has said it plans to lower its rate.
It is nearly triple Ireland’s and 10 percentage points higher than in Denmark, Austria or China. To help companies here stay competitive, many executives say, Congress should lower it.
But by taking advantage of myriad breaks and loopholes that other countries generally do not offer, United States corporations pay only slightly more on average than their counterparts in other industrial countries.
And some American corporations use aggressive strategies to pay less — often far less — than their competitors abroad and at home.
A Government Accountability Office study released in 2008 found that 55 percent of United States companies paid no federal income taxes during at least one year in a seven-year period it studied.
The paradox of the United States tax code — high rates with a bounty of subsidies, shelters and special breaks — has made American multinationals “world leaders in tax avoidance,” according to Edward D.
Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California who was head of the Congressional joint committee on taxes. This has profound implications for businesses, the economy and the federal budget.
As Congress wrestles with how to get the deficit under control, one big point of contention is whether spending cuts will need to be accompanied by an increase in taxes on some individuals or businesses.
Facing a full-court press from business leaders who say the tax system is outdated and onerous, President Obama, Congress and business leaders have been warily negotiating various proposals, though mostly about whether to cut the top corporate rate and to tighten tax laws and not about whether to increase revenue.
The United States is virtually alone in trying to tax its multinational corporations on their foreign earnings, but it allows companies to avoid those taxes indefinitely by keeping profits overseas.
That encourages companies to use accounting maneuvers to shift profits to low-tax countries and to invest profits offshore, says David S. Miller, a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in New York.
Honeywell International , the New Jersey company that makes things as diverse as aerospace components and First Alert smoke detectors, reported in regulatory filings that in the last five years, it paid cash income taxes in the United States and abroad equal to 15 percent of its profits.
Complex and Uneven
On Friday, a Honeywell spokeswoman pointed out that the company had since made a large pension contribution, which effectively cut its profits and made its tax rate closer to 22 percent.
A major domestic competitor, United Technologies , reported an average of 24 percent over that time. A German rival, Siemens, reported 29 percent of its total profit.
In addition to being complex and uneven, the United States corporate tax code is inefficient and has become a diminishing source of revenue. Corporate taxes accounted for about 9 percent of all federal revenue in 2010.
At $191 billion, they were equal to 1.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Most industrial countries collect more from companies, about 2.5 percent of output.
Only a portion of that disparity can be explained by the many types of businesses in the United States that elect to be taxed at an individual rate.
“Whether the test is fairness or efficiency, the U.S. system gets really low marks,” said Michelle Hanlon, an M.I.T. professor who says the country needs to completely revamp the way it taxes corporations.
Not all American companies are willing or able to reduce their taxes drastically. Taxes vary more by industry here than abroad, according to a study released in February by Kevin S. Markle of Dartmouth and Douglas A. Shackelford of the University of North Carolina.
At the high end, American retailers paid 31 percent in total income taxes, construction 30 percent and manufacturers 26 percent.
Financial services companies paid an average of 20 percent, real estate 19 percent and mining 6 percent. (Measuring taxes paid by companies is imprecise because tax filings remain private. In many cases, the estimates reported in a company’s financial filings with regulators overstate taxes paid in a year because they include deferred taxes. Nonetheless, academics, economists and elected officials use the estimates for comparative purposes.)
Because some companies are so effective at minimizing taxes, the average works out to far less than the official rate.
United States companies pay about a quarter of their profits in federal income taxes, a few percentage points higher than the rate paid by companies in most other major industrial countries, according to a number of studies and tax experts.
Assorted proposals being discussed in Washington call for the rate to be lowered officially to about 25 percent and some tax breaks to be eliminated so that revenue remains unchanged.
But some prominent business leaders, including the chief executive of Procter & Gamble, are pushing for the rate to be reduced without reining in tax shelters.
That would make the United States virtually the only country to change corporate taxes in recent years in a way that ended up adding to its deficit.
“One fact we know is that in all of the countries that have lowered their corporate rates in recent years, they still collected the same amount in revenues or more,” said Reuven S. Avi-Yonah, an international tax lawyer who teaches at the University of Michigan. “This means that they were broadening the base of the profits that corporations were actually taxed on.”
Procter & Gamble , whose products include Tide detergent and Crest toothpaste, paid an average of 24 percent of its profits in worldwide income taxes over the last three years, according to regulatory filings. That is nearly the same rate reported by two big European rivals, Unilever and Henkel.
Yet Robert A. McDonald, P.& G.’s top executive, testified before a Congressional committee this year about the need to cut the United States tax rate without ending tax breaks and shelters. “We need a tax system that addresses today’s hypercompetitive global marketplace,” Mr. McDonald said, arguing that the playing field was tilted away from American businesses.
Many liberal groups counter that ending the breaks, subsidies and shelters in the corporate tax code could provide enough money to lower the rate several percentage points and still increase revenue.
Furthermore, some business owners complain that the American system unfairly rewards disingenuous bookkeeping rather than innovation.
It forces companies to compete “based not on product quality and services, but on accounting gymnastics,” said Paul Egerman, former chairman and chief executive of eScription, a medical transcription service in Boston.
No one is certain how much creative accounting costs the federal government in lost revenue, but most estimates say it easily exceeds $50 billion a year.
Targeted tax preferences, which Congress created to intentionally benefit specific companies or industries, cost an estimated $100 billion more a year.
Many tax analysts are skeptical that Congress, business leaders and the Obama administration will be able to reach a deal before the 2012 election.
“It’s human nature that people are going to fight harder to preserve a benefit they already have than to get some new benefit,” said Clint Stretch, a principal at Deloitte Tax and a former counsel to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
“The only way tax reform makes everyone happy is if everyone wins. And with the federal budget where it is today, that’s not possible.”