Friday, February 09, 2007

When You Tax Profits, You Tax People

ExxonMobil just reported the largest annual profit ever by a U.S. company — a staggering $39.5 billion.

I say congratulations, although Hillary Clinton begs to differ.

At the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, the senator from New York said, “The oil companies reported the highest profits in the history of the world. I want to take those profits and I want to put them in an alternative energy fund.”

Take? Isn’t that a confiscation of private property? Author P.J. O’Rourke framed it perfectly on a recent edition of CNBC’s Kudlow & Co.: She’s “Hugo Chavez in a pants suit.”

And what exactly would Mrs. Clinton be taking? ExxonMobil’s profits are outsized, but they come on sales of $377.5 billion, making for a profit margin of just over 10 cents on the dollar. This remains well below the profit margins of many industries, including banking and biotech where the margins nearly double those in the energy sector. The numbers are big, but the returns are middling.

And since sales and profits in the energy sector depend on the world price of oil, it’s feast or famine for these businesses. In the last decade, oil prices have fluctuated from about $10 a barrel to nearly $80. Talk about volatile pricing.

Indeed, the energy business isn’t easy. Still, ExxonMobil remains one of the best-run companies in America. Many professional investors believe it’s the best-run company. In his recent book, The Future for Investors, Jeremy Siegel of the University of Pennsylvania reveals that Exxon has been one of the top-three stocks in terms of return on investment over the past fifty-odd years. John D. Rockefeller Sr., looking down from on high, must be pleased.

But it’s also a tax-burdened company. While ExxonMobil recorded record profits last year, it also paid $100.7 billion in taxes — two-and-half times its net profits, according to the Tax Foundation. In fact, over the past twenty-five years, federal and state governments took $397 billion from the largest oil companies and an additional $1.1 trillion in taxes at the pump. In today’s dollars, that’s $2.2 trillion.

This isn’t an isolated problem. The prevailing 35 percent corporate tax rate takes a monster bite from all U.S. businesses. Moreover, our business taxes are far too high in relation to the rest of the world. Believe it or not, the corporate tax rate is lower in France than it is in the United States.

Along with slow-growing Japan, the U.S. has the highest marginal tax rate on corporate profits of any of the developed countries. Think of this: Germany is cutting its corporate tax rate to 15 percent from 25 percent. And if frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy wins the French presidential election this spring, he plans to slash France’s corporate tax burden. Meanwhile, we’ll still be taking our best companies behind the barn and shooting them.

The bottom line here is that our economic system is all about free-market capitalism, and at the core of that system is profit. Profit isn’t a dirty word. From profits spring the abundance of this great country. Profits are the mother’s milk of stocks and the economy. Expanding profits provide businesses the resources to enlarge production operations and hire additional workers. This, in turn, is how incomes are created, wages that are then spent by American families.

Why can’t liberals grasp this?

When the government meddles in the market and taxes companies more — when it sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong — it ends up hurting not just businesses, but all individuals. Taxing profits more means taxing families more. Taxing profits more leads to smaller wage gains for middle-income workers. When you tax American companies more, the American workforce is paid less. And when you tax American energy companies more, they produce less energy. That means higher prices for gas at the pump and heating fuel at home. This may enrich Uncle Sam, but it comes at the expense of ordinary folks.

Washington economist Kevin Hassett has shown that the U.S. workforce bears a full 70 percent of the cost of corporate taxes. So, if folks are indeed worried about wage inequality, they should be lobbying their congressional representatives to cut corporate taxes in order to increase worker wages.

The truth is, when you tax profits more you undermine the American work ethic and the incentive structure that goes along with it. In fact, you demoralize the very system that has made this country great. It’s the people who ultimately pay the corporate profits tax — and that includes shareholders, pensioners, and other retirees. Business taxes should be headed down, not up.

Punish ExxonMobil for turning a healthy profit? Take those profits? Do that and you punish the American worker and the entire economy, too.