Warren E. Buffett, take note. It is not just a few wealthy individuals paying unusually low taxes to the federal government. Corporate America is not far behind.
A comprehensive study released on Thursday found that 280 of the biggest publicly traded American companies faced federal income tax bills equal to 18.5 percent of their profits during the last three years — little more than half the official corporate rate of 35 percent and lower than their competitors in many industrialized countries.
Mr. Buffett, the billionaire investor, has said that the tax code is unfair, allowing him to pay just 17 percent in federal taxes last year, about half the percentage his secretary paid.
The corporate study, prepared by the left-leaning advocacy group Citizens for Tax Justice, examined the regulatory filings of the companies to compute each year’s current federal taxes. Some of the companies disputed the findings, saying that the study understated their tax payments by omitting deferred taxes that they may pay in future years.
Using information from the companies’ own corporate filings, however, the study concluded that a quarter of the 280 corporations owed less than 10 percent of profits in federal income taxes and 30 companies had no federal tax liability for the entire three-year period.
The report is being released as corporations are pushing for a cut in their official tax rate, saying the current system puts American companies at a disadvantage with competitors abroad and encourages them to shift jobs and investments overseas.
The Congressional supercommittee charged with cutting the budget deficit is also considering proposals to revamp the tax system, simplifying the corporate structure and possibly lowering corporate rates.
The study said that the shelters and loopholes in the current tax system rewarded companies that aggressively avoided taxes at the expense of those that did not. A quarter of the companies in the study had a federal tax bill of 35 percent of their profits, while a similar number had an effective rate of less than 10 percent.
“Companies that are paying their fair share ought to demand that the tax-dodging companies pay their fair share too,” said Robert S. McIntyre, the author of study. “So should the public, which is subsidizing them in terms of increased federal debt.”
The report is based on data gleaned from the companies’ regulatory filings, which can be different from their corporate tax returns. Even in a year when a company claims an overall tax benefit, it may pay some cash taxes while accumulating credits that can be redeemed in future years. But because most corporations do not release their tax returns, these corporate regulatory filings offer the best publicly available gauge of what companies pay and what strategies they use to reduce their tax bills.
Among the companies that the study said escaped a liability for all three years were Boeing and Ryder System, whose chief financial officer, Art A. Garcia, said the company had benefited from the additional depreciation intended to stimulate the economy.
Boeing officials said they, too, had paid some federal taxes, but would not say how much. They said they had lowered their rate by taking advantage of tax breaks intended to encourage hiring. Chaz Bickers, a company spokesman, said Boeing hired 9,000 American workers this year.
Also on the list was General Electric , which has come under close scrutiny since The New York Times reported earlier this year that the company had recorded $5.1 billion in American profits in 2010, but claimed a federal income tax benefit of $3.2 billion in its regulatory filing.
“The report is inaccurate and distorted,” said Kenneth Juarez, a G.E. spokesman. He said G.E. paid “billions of dollars in taxes in the United States over the last decade,” but would not say what part was federal income taxes.
The company that recorded the biggest reduction in taxes was Wells Fargo Bank, which is a large holding of Mr. Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway. The banking company reported a total of $49 billion in profits in 2008 through 2010, yet received a tax benefit of $651 million. Ancel Martinez, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, said much of the tax savings came from write-offs obtained after its 2008 purchase of Wachovia, which incurred big losses during the financial crisis.
American corporations are paying a smaller share of taxes than in previous decades. They paid a total of $191 billion in federal income taxes in 2010, the Internal Revenue Service said, representing about 1.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That is down from about 6 percent during the 1950s (although some of the decline is because a smaller percentage of businesses now file as corporations).
Despite the decline in corporate tax rates since then, business advocates say the nation needs to lower its top rate further to encourage hiring and investment. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said that the United States system was not competitive because it taxed income earned around the world, instead of just in this country.
“There are still Bolsheviks who recognize that we need to bring the rates down,” he said.
But the Citizens for Tax Justice study found that two-thirds of the American companies with significant profits overseas actually paid more in taxes to foreign governments than they did in the United States. Rather than lowering the corporate rate more, the study said, the federal government should end the subsidies and shelters that favor companies that game the system.
“Closing the loopholes will have real benefits, including a fairer tax system, reduced federal budget deficits and more resources to improve our roads, bridges and school — things that are really important for economic development here in the United States," the report said.