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How Will General Electric's Relocation Affect Shareholder Returns?

By John Bromels - Jan 25, 2016 at 1:15PM

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It's official: GE is moving from Connecticut to Boston over tax issues. But how much will this really affect the bottom line?

GE is "moving," all right. Image source: GE.

Boston has rolled out the red carpet for General Electric (GE 1.41%) with a host of tax breaks and incentives. But the #makeGEpay hashtag, now trending on Twitter, isn't the welcome it was hoping for.

Much of the reporting (and tweeting) surrounding the company's move from its longtime home in Fairfield, Conn., to neighboring Massachusetts, has focused on the pros (it "could finally give the Boston business community a helipad!") and the cons ("a punch in the stomach for Connecticut") for the two locales. Far more interesting for shareholders is, what does it mean for GE's bottom line? And will it inspire other Connecticut conglomerates to follow suit (lookin' at you, United Technologies (RTX -1.98%))?

First, the good stuff
The package of goodies from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston total some $151 million, mostly consisting of state grants and a $25 million property-tax break from the city. This deal doesn't include $125 million in promised infrastructure improvements.

That's a lot in exchange for moving just 800 jobs to Boston. Nobody's denying GE got a pretty sweet deal. In fact, this is the source of the #makeGEpay hashtag: Some Bostonians feel as if the deal is a little bit too sweet.

But even $125 million is just a drop in the bucket for a company that has annual revenues north of $148 billion. Even if the incentives package had been twice as large, it wouldn't mean much for investors -- remember, there are administrative costs to a relocation as well.

Which brings us to the (ostensible) reason GE made the move in the first place: taxes.

The taxman cometh
While GE's press release about its current move doesn't cite any reason in particular for leaving its longtime home, the most obvious -- and most cited in the media -- is Connecticut's new corporate tax structure, enacted last year. Many Connecticut corporations, GE among them, objected to it and questioned whether they would stay in the state if the measure was passed.

GE had issues with multiple features of the new tax plan. According to the Tax Foundation:

The state's budget included $500 million in new corporate tax revenue. The largest change was switching the state to combined reporting. Combined reporting changes how businesses treat the income of affiliated subsidiaries. Under combined reporting, a corporation must include income from its subsidiaries in its tax calculations, instead of each component being taxed individually. The plan also increased the sales tax on data processing from 1 percent to 3 percent.

Connecticut's corporate tax rate of 9% is one of the highest in the nation. So, through combined reporting, more of GE's profits would be taxed at this relatively high rate, starting this year.

The thing is, Massachusetts is an odd place to escape to, if escaping taxes is what GE is after.

Out of the frying pan
Massachusetts -- long derided as "Taxachusetts" -- has a corporate tax structure that isn't all that different from its neighbor's. True, its corporate tax rate is lower than Connecticut's, but only by a piddly 1%. It also has combined reporting, so GE isn't escaping that particular policy.

Sussing out the overall effects of this change in headquarters on GE's bottom line is tricky. WNPR in Connecticut reported that GE paid no state income taxes on its $4.2 billion in U.S. profits in 2014. It's tough to see, then, how this move is going to affect GE's bottom line: It doesn't get much cheaper than free.

In a statement of response, a GE spokesman told the station that "GE paid $3.0 billion in cash income taxes worldwide last year, including in the U.S. In addition, GE paid more than $1 billion in other U.S. state, local, and federal taxes." No further breakdown was available.

In 2014, GE reported its effective overall tax rate as 17% (excluding GE Capital earnings, the taxes on which are not included in GE's tax calculations), or $1.6 billion. Even if this move resulted in a reduction of its total tax liability from 17% to 16% (which would be an incredibly huge impact), it would only reduce the corporation's tax liability by about $100 million, to $1.5 billion. That's hardly going to register on the company's $15.2 billion bottom line.

It's also why United Technologies is unlikely to leave Hartford for greener pastures. United Technologies is Connecticut's largest private employer, with 22,000 jobs in the state. And the state has been very generous with the company in return: It received a $400 million subsidy deal in 2014. That kind of money is sure to outweigh any potential tax benefits of relocation.

The Foolish bottom line
GE's departure to Boston may well save the company some money in state income taxes and yield it some nice incentives from its new home. But ultimately, the move means more for GE employees -- who will probably pay a lower personal income tax in Massachusetts -- than it does for GE shareholders. Likewise, shareholders of other Connecticut companies such as United Technologies shouldn't get their hopes up about a big payday, either. 

John Bromels has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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