What’s good for American corporations isn’t necessarily good for Americans

Corporate profits for some, tiny American flags for others.
Corporate profits for some, tiny American flags for others.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The United States’s time as the world’s leader in economic production is likely coming to an end, as countries with far-bigger populations gain access to modern technology.

But does that matter if US corporations are still the most profitable? Research on corporate finance by Sean Starrs, soon to be a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, finds that American dominance is far from over. Working from a data-set of the top 2,000 corporations in the world divided into 25 sectors, Starrs found that American firms have the leading profit share in 18, with no other country coming close. He concludes that “despite almost seven decades of increasing global competition and the rise of vast regions of the world (most of all East Asia), American transnational corporations continue to dominate the pinnacle of global capitalism, a phenomenon that national accounts miss.”

But what’s also missing is the connection between American corporate profits and the US itself. How do corporate profits at US companies benefit America?

One way is corporate taxes. The Center for Tax Justice released a new analysis today of income tax payments made by the 288 US Fortune 500 corporations that were profitable between 2008 and 2012. Corporate tax revenue has been falling in recent years, and the report finds the average effective tax rate was 19.4%, much lower than the statutory 35% rate, and a third of the companies paid an effective tax rate of less than 10%.

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Of companies with significant offshore profits, CTJ found two-thirds paid higher tax rates to foreign governments than they did in the US. The US effective federal tax rate of the 117 companies earning more than $1 billion overseas from 2008 to 2012 was just 18%, while their foreign tax rate was 26%.

Another is investment and hiring. All 288 companies in the CTJ combined kept some $922 billion in income—nearly a trillion dollars!—offshore between 2008 and 2012. That spares them US taxes, and means those companies aren’t investing that money into US operations. We know that US corporations aren’t paying workers more, since even as profits have soared in recent years, wages have fallen. There is also evidence that jobs have declined in some sectors, particularly manufacturing, as US corporations have been able to rely more on foreign workers.

Finally, there is ownership. At the end of the day, US corporate profits revert to the people that own their stock. Sometimes this is a technicality, especially with so much unrepatriated income—that’s when you see bank-shot plans like Apple’s to borrow money to pay stockholders in the hopes that the tax costs will eventually be less than the interest. Foreign profits do mean good things for America’s public companies, but only 52% of Americans own stock—and more than 10% of US equities and more than 40% of US corporate debt is owned by foreign investors.

All this isn’t to predict disaster or to suggest that US corporate success isn’t an important phenomenon. But it does point to the lack of a straight line between US corporate domination and benefits to the majority of Americans, all because of the basic infrastructure of globalization. As Starr notes, the way corporate profits return to US drives inequality, disproportionately benefitting the wealthy.