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Understanding U.S. Corporate Tax Losses


  • Rosanne Altshuler
  • Alan J. Auerbach
  • Michael Cooper
  • Matthew Knittel


Recent data present a puzzle: the ratio of corporate tax losses to positive income was much higher around 2001 than in earlier recessions. Using a comprehensive 1982-2005 sample of U.S. corporation tax returns, we explore a variety of potential explanations for this surge in tax losses, taking account of the significant use of executive compensation stock options beginning in the 1990s and recent temporary tax provisions that might have had important effects on taxable income. We find that losses rose because the average rate of return of C corporations fell, rather than because of an increase in the dispersion of returns or an increase in the gap between corporate profits subject to tax and NIPA corporate profits. Our analysis also suggests that the increasing importance of S corporations may help explain the recent experience within the C corporate sector, as S corporations have exhibited a different pattern of losses in recent years. However, we can identify no simple explanation for this differing experience. Our investigation concludes with some new puzzles: why did rates of return of C corporations fall so much early in the decade and why has the incidence of losses among C and S corporations diverged?

Suggested Citation

  • Rosanne Altshuler & Alan J. Auerbach & Michael Cooper & Matthew Knittel, 2008. "Understanding U.S. Corporate Tax Losses," NBER Working Papers 14405, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14405
    Note: PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Steven J. Davis & John Haltiwanger & Ron Jarmin & Javier Miranda, 2007. "Volatility and Dispersion in Business Growth Rates: Publicly Traded versus Privately Held Firms," NBER Chapters,in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2006, Volume 21, pages 107-180 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Alan J. Auerbach, 2007. "Why Have Corporate Tax Revenues Declined? Another Look," CESifo Economic Studies, CESifo, vol. 53(2), pages 153-171, June.
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    5. Gordon, Roger H. & Hines, James Jr, 2002. "International taxation," Handbook of Public Economics,in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 28, pages 1935-1995 Elsevier.
    6. Rosanne Altshuler & Harry Grubert, 2005. "The Three Parties in the Race to the Bottom: Host Governments, Home Governments and Multinational Companies," CESifo Working Paper Series 1613, CESifo Group Munich.
    7. Grubert, Harry & Mutti, John, 1991. "Taxes, Tariffs and Transfer Pricing in Multinational Corporate Decision Making," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 73(2), pages 285-293, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Alan Auerbach, 2009. "US Fiscal Policy In Recession: What's Next?," CESifo Forum, Ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, vol. 10(2), pages 3-8, July.
    2. Nadja Dwenger & Pia Rattenhuber & Viktor Steiner, 2011. "Sharing the burden: Empirical evidence on corporate tax incidence," Working Papers sharing_the_burden, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance.
    3. Alan J. Auerbach, 2009. "Implementing the New Fiscal Policy Activism," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(2), pages 543-549, May.
    4. Nadja Dwenger & Viktor Steiner, 2014. "Financial leverage and corporate taxation: evidence from German corporate tax return data," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 21(1), pages 1-28, February.

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    JEL classification:

    • H25 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Business Taxes and Subsidies

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