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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?

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 14405.

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Date of creation: Oct 2008
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Understanding U.S. Corporate Tax Losses , Rosanne Altshuler, Alan J. Auerbach, Michael Cooper, Matthew Knittel. in Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 23 , Brown and Poterba. 2009
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14405
Note: PE
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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Rosanne Altshuler & Alan J. Auerbach, 1987. "The Significance of Tax Law Asymmetries: An Empirical Investigation," NBER Working Papers 2279, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Hines, J.R. & Rice, E.M., 1990. "Fiscal Paradise: Foreign Tax Havens And American Business," Papers 56, Princeton, Woodrow Wilson School - Discussion Paper.
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  6. Hamid Mehran & Joseph Tracy, 2001. "The effect of employee stock options on the evolution of compensation in the 1990s," Economic Policy Review, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, issue Dec, pages 17-34.
  7. Stephen Davis & John Haltiwanger & Ron Jarmin & Javier Miranda, 2006. "Volatility and Dispersion in Business Growth Rates: Publicly Traded Versus Privately Held Firms," Working Papers 06-17, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  8. Diego A. Comin & Thomas Philippon, 2006. "The Rise in Firm-Level Volatility: Causes and Consequences," NBER Chapters, in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2005, Volume 20, pages 167-228 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Alan J. Auerbach, 2007. "Why Have Corporate Tax Revenues Declined? Another Look," CESifo Economic Studies, CESifo, vol. 53(2), pages 153-171, June.
  10. 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 285-93, May.
  11. Cooper, Michael & Knittel, Matthew, 2006. "Partial Loss Refundability: How Are Corporate Tax Losses Used?," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 59(3), pages 651-63, September.
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