"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
There is, incidentally, some uncertainty about the origin of that quote, which is widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin. However, most of us are familiar with the saying and the inevitability of those two things, neither of which is generally greeted with enthusiasm.
However, in corporate America, this well-worn rule doesn't quite apply like it does to the rest of us. And unless some biotech company has come up with a real blockbuster product I'm unaware of, we're not talking about the certainty of death here.
The Institute for Policy Studies released a report this week that weighed CEO pay against corporate tax obligations. At many companies, the only certainty other than workers' mortality is that CEOs get paid a heck of a lot in salary and goodies -- more than those corporations pay in federal taxes, in fact.
What would Ben Franklin say?
According to IPS's "The CEO Hands in Uncle Sam's Pocket," our collective tax dollars are helping to subsidize skyrocketing levels of CEO pay. The authors contend that the tax code, in effect, encourages corporate managements to "game the system," and that in some cases, tax rules actually incentivize insane CEO-to-worker pay ratios.
This is the second year IPS has looked at this particular aspect of the CEO pay issue, which it has tracked for 19 years. Of the 100 highest-paid CEOs in America in 2011, 26 enjoyed pay packages that were actually higher than the amounts their companies shelled out in taxes. That's up from 25 last year. Seven of these companies made the list both years.
Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and AIG (NYSE: AIG ) were among the companies highlighted -- which seems perverse, as both received taxpayer-funded bailouts that pulled their bacon out of the fire during the financial crisis.
According to IPS, in 2011 Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit received $14.9 million in compensation, and the financial company received a $144 million tax refund. AIG's chief, Robert Benmosche, took home $13.9 million in pay, while the company received a $208 million refund.
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , which has been subject to a barrage of well-deserved scrutiny in the last year, also made the list for the exorbitant pay awarded to scandal-laden CEO Aubrey McClendon in 2011. In fact, Chesapeake Energy was featured on the list for 2010 and 2011. Last year, McClendon was rewarded with a handsome $17.9 million in pay, and the company paid out $13 million to the IRS. (Incidentally, it reported $2.8 billion in profit.)
Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT ) also made the list. IPS called it out for having 64 tax havens in 16 countries while issuing the reminder that drug companies are particularly adept at abusing tax havens. CEO Miles White collected $19 million in total pay, while the company actually received a $586 million refund from the tax man.
Booms, busts, and byzantine rules
Yesterday, Reuters reported that many of the companies being called out by IPS disputed the report's findings. Abbott Labs made the most dramatic response, calling the report's findings "a blatant misrepresentation of the facts." A spokesman countered that Abbott actually shelled out $700 million to the IRS last year, and that the results the report cited were due to a "non-cash accounting adjustment."
The tax code, of course, is a labyrinth. The report outlines why corporations and their CEOs often get off pretty easy when it comes to lightening up their bank accounts for the tax man, given the legality of tax havens, subsidies, and little tricks and loopholes like "unlimited deferred compensation."
Since the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, tax revenues have absolutely taken a hit. The ripple effects include mass layoffs of public workers across the country, including teachers and employees charged with public safety. Although the public sector needs to reform the way it budgets its monies (and also should have learned some lessons about the boom-and-bust cycle of economies), it's difficult to deny that putting masses of Americans out of work all at once isn't beneficial to our economic well-being.
Regardless of the political arguments, the bottom-line result is that far less discretionary income will be circulating through our marketplace. In the near term, that's a reality we will all face, both as citizens and as investors. Less discretionary income means less revenue for many publicly traded companies, which could wipe out many of the weaker ones.
Meanwhile, even those who don't particularly appreciate the certainty of taxation should at least agree that one sector of America shouldn't be shielded from it. What's with all that cushy welfare for corporate America, anyway?
The search for certainty
Ben Franklin was absolutely right that certainty is scarce in this world, and these days that's more obvious than ever as economic insecurity rears its head both here and abroad.
One thing is for certain, though: Austerity and frugality shouldn't be demanded for some and not for others, and rules shouldn't favor the few over everybody else. Unless I missed something, death, high tax rates for some and big breaks for others, and insanely high CEO pay aren't the only things in this world that are "certain."
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.