(WASHINGTON) — The Institute for Policy Studies, a self-described “progressive multi-issue think tank,” analyzed the link between tax loopholes and excessive executive compensation and concluded that the loopholes created an “uneven playing field” between large companies and small businesses and led to lost tax revenue.
The latest edition of the institute’s annual Executive Excess compensation study found that in 2011, 26 CEOs received more in compensation than their companies paid in taxes, and that the four major tax loopholes contributing to excessive executive pay cost taxpayers about $14.4 billion a year.
“The report is timely at a time when the tax debate is so intense in this country,” Sarah Anderson, the institute’s global economy project director and the report’s co-author, told ABC News. “Some leaders are saying we need to reduce the corporate tax burden even more while major companies are taking advantage of loopholes to lower their tax bill.”
The report critiqued the major tax loopholes, including the preferential treatment of “carried interest” income for hedge fund managers. “Carried interest” income can be taxed as capital gains — at 15 percent tops — instead of at 35 percent, the top income tax rate. The Congressional Budget Office’s projected estimate for “carried interest” income — revenue from investment income or dividends — for 2012 to 2021 was $21.4 billion.
Companies can deduct executive pay as a business expense, just as they do inventory and appreciation. Because of a tax rule enacted in the early 1990s that limited the amount of cash that could be deducted to $1 million, corporations have increasingly paid executives in stock options. Corporations can exempt stock option compensation, and other performance-based pay, from taxation.
William McBride, chief economist with the Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning nonpartisan think tank, said this makes sense, because stock options are speculative compensation.
“They’re worth nothing unless they’re in the money,” McBride told ABC News. “It wouldn’t be fair to tax someone for getting paid an option that doesn’t have any real value until it has been exercised.”
Steven Balsam, an accounting professor at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, said from a business viewpoint, “it’s an expense, just like any other person’s salary.”
Others defend performance-based compensation for high-performing executives who have overseen companies with increasing earnings and stock prices.
Balsam said it was unlikely that boards would limit executive pay even if their pay was not tax deductible.
Anderson, who co-wrote the report, said that company boards that might choose to forfeit the deduction and continue paying high compensation packages “are stacked with executives from other firms that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
“However, we need to keep chipping away at the myth that massive payouts are necessary to attract talented managers,” she said. “Having a meaningful deductibility cap would send the right message, and at least taxpayers wouldn’t have to continue to subsidize excessive pay.”
The report points to the largest beneficiaries of the tax loopholes, saying they benefit the most from the unlimited tax deductibility of executive pay because their compensation has the largest proportion of deductible, performanced-based pay.
Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the sixth richest person in the world with a net worth of $36 billion, according to Forbes, tops the list, and is followed by Discovery Communications’ David Zaslav; Viacom’s Philippe Dauman; Motorola Mobility Holdings’ Sanjay Jha; and CBS Corp.’s Leslie Moonves.
Neither Oracle, Discovery Communications, Viacom and Motorola Mobility Holdings returned calls requesting comment. A spokeswoman for CBS Corp. and a spokeswoman for Discovery declined to comment.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Alanna Petroff, CNN
Kathryn Vasel, CNN
Jose Pagliery, CNN
Rob McLean and Joshua Berlinger, CNN