U.S. corporations are already beginning the process of pocketing the winnings from the tax bill jackpot they expect to hit any day now, undercutting, in a remarkably public fashion, the pretense that the corporate tax cut will lead to greater investment in job creation.
Since the Senate passed its version of the tax bill on December 2, 29 companies have announced $70.2 billion in stock buybacks, a maneuver that uses company cash to buy its own shares, which then drives up the price of those shares, rewarding major investors and executives whose compensation is directly tied to the company’s stock price.
The figure comes from a new report by Senate Democrats, which relies on the public statements of company executives. Stock buybacks, meanwhile, had been declining. There were $120 billion in buybacks in the entire second quarter of 2017, among all companies. The new figure — $70.2 billion in just 10 days, from just 29 companies — suggests that a surge of buybacks is in the offing if the tax bill becomes official, representing a staggering transfer of wealth from taxpayers straight to the wealthy.
As part of the tax bill, corporations will be able to bring back trillions of dollars parked overseas at a much lower tax rate than current law. Companies also benefit from a slashing of the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and the elimination of the corporate “alternative minimum tax,” which enables the use of as many deductions as possible to hold onto earnings.
Republicans insist that the trillions of dollars headed back to corporations will get funneled into investments, job creation, and wage growth, a recitation of the theory of trickle-down economics. Corporate CEOs beg to differ. In a now-famous interlude with White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, CEOs were asked whether they would spend more from corporate treasuries if the tax bill passed. Only a few raised their hands. “Why aren’t the other hands up?” Cohn pleaded.
We now have 70.2 billion reasons why. And counting.
The companies announcing buybacks include some of the biggest in the world, like Home Depot, Oracle, Honeywell, Bank of America, Anthem, Boeing, MasterCard, and United Airlines. All of the announcements have come since December 5.
“Corporate CEOs have made clear that the massive tax giveaways in the Republican plan will not be passed on to workers but to rich investors — including the wealthy foreign investors who own about a third of the shares in American companies,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a statement accompanying the Senate Democrats’ report. “This plan will do nothing to stimulate the economy or raise wages — but it sure will make a bunch of rich guys a lot richer.”
The case of Oracle in particular is instructive. The software maker had $52 billion stashed overseas as of the end of 2016, the fifth most of any U.S. company, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Under the tax bill, that money would come back to the U.S. at a dramatically reduced tax rate. On December 14, the company announced a $12 billion buyback, with investors enjoying the benefits of the repatriated funds. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison will receive an estimated $103.7 million in stock over the next five years, which actually represented a drop from his previous stock awards. With the buybacks, Ellison’s stock holdings will jump in value.
In 2004, President George W. Bush gave companies like Oracle a “repatriation tax holiday.” Hundreds of companies returned $312 billion in overseas earnings to the U.S. at a 5.25 percent tax rate. The Congressional Research Service cited one study showing that 91 percent of that money went to stock buybacks. Stock buybacks, as a result, jumped by 84 percent, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis.
The spectacle of companies announcing buybacks before the ink dries on the GOP tax bill ends all debate, if there was any left, on whether the tax cuts will lead to more jobs and better wages, or mass shareholder enrichment.
The list of buybacks is below.