"We looked at high tech specifically because they were making so much profit," Samuel Kang, general counsel for Greenlining and a co-author of the report, told The Huffington Post. "They were one of the few industries making not just profits, but record profits, during the economic downturn."
Greenlining's report arrives just as tax season draws to a close -- and as debate continues in Washington over how much of a burden the country's wealthiest people and corporations should be asked to bear.
The U.S. tax code, and the leniency it often affords the well-off, has emerged as a dominant theme of this election cycle, with figures as diverse as Warren Buffett and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators citing it as a concern. President Barack Obama's campaign team has used the relatively low tax rate paid by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, as ammunition against Romney, even as Obama has called for a lower top tax rate on U.S. corporations.
For anyone dismayed at the way those corporations often seem to sidestep the brunt of their tax burden -- sometimes paying nothing at all in federal income tax despite billions in profits -- Greenlining's report offers much to fret over.
The report, which examined 30 tech companies within the Fortune 500, argues that these companies paid an average corporate tax rate of just 16 percent in 2011 -- less than half the official 35 percent tax rate that Obama and Romney have each said is too high.
Apple paid a top tax rate of just 9.8 percent in 2011, the report says. Google paid a rate of 11.9 percent, while Yahoo paid 11.6 percent and Microsoft paid 18.9 percent. Xerox paid 7.3 percent of its income in taxes, while Amazon paid only 3.5 percent, according to the report.
None of these instances is as egregious as, say, General Electric , which was once infamously reported to have paid no federal income taxes in 2008, 2009 or 2010 -- an assertion that the company disputed -- and which has reportedly paid an average corporate tax rate of just 2.3 percent over the past decade, according to an analysis by the group Citizens for Tax Justice.
Still, among those familiar with tax policy, the practices described in the Greenlining report might raise some eyebrows. For the sake of comparison, the report says, Apple (and Xerox and Amazon) paid a lower tax rate in 2011 than an American household making $42,500 a year.
While Microsoft's tax rate was lower than the nominal corporate rate, it was higher than the 16.4 percent rate the company paid last year, according to Greenlining. Apple, Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Xerox, on the other hand, all paid a lower rate this year than they did last year.
Greenlining researchers said their figures are based on company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A representative from Xerox told The Huffington Post that the company's effective global tax rate in 2011 was 24.7 percent, higher than the 7.3 percent U.S. rate described by Greenlining. A Yahoo spokesperson declined to comment.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. Apple and Amazon did not make spokespeople available to discuss the report.
Many of the companies named in the report keep large portions of foreign earnings overseas, rather than bring them back to the U.S. where they can be taxed. Greenlining estimated that the 30 companies analyzed in the report have a combined $430 billion offshore -- money that the U.S. government, for the moment, can't tax, even as the country scrambles to plug budget gaps at the federal, state and local levels.
"it's unfair, and ultimately it's going to have an impact on all of us," Kang told HuffPost, in reference to companies' efforts to keep their earnings beyond the reach of the tax collector. "When you look at who's left holding the bag and who has to make up the difference, it's all of us as individuals."
Several of the tech companies examined in the Greenlining report, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, support a legislative push for a so-called tax repatriation holiday -- a one-time event that would allow companies to bring their overseas cash into the U.S. at a drastically reduced tax rate, which advocates say would spur new economic activity.
Congress approved a repatriation holiday in 2004, but the consensus among economists has been that its effects on investment and job creation were negligible.
"The firms that brought money back [in 2004] were not the same firms" that engaged in new hiring or investment, said Fritz Foley, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. "Most of the studies didn't find much evidence of job creation among repatriating firms."