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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Is disclosure of corporate tax information a good idea?

Among the many stories about some U.S. corporations looking into becoming a foreign corporation through an "inversion" is the question of whether one possibly remedy is to make corporate tax return information available to the public. For example, an op ed by Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post (8/21/14)was titled: "Shareholders, public deserve tax transparency."  She suggests that all publicly-traded companies be required to make their tax returns available to the public.

I don't agree.  For a few reasons:
  1. Too complex to understand:  These corporate returns are complicated and few can truly understand them. In addition to the basic corporate forms, there will be numerous attachments on the details of miscellaneous expenses, inventory accounting, reconciling book-tax differences, and more. These returns can easily exceed 2,000 pages.  And the tax laws used to determine taxable income is complicated. The tax rules don't match the accounting rules as to which entities are included in the consolidated tax return. Some of the information also won't make sense unless you also look at the prior two years of returns.  It will take tax advisers very knowledgeable in the corporate income tax area to understand the many pieces of the returns. So, what would be the point?  There is some basic tax information already provided in the financial statements, already available since the companies are publicly-traded (available at the company's website and SEC website).
  2. Confidentiality: Tax return information is supposed to be confidential. If we want to know about the finances of a publicly-traded company - take a look at the financial statements, Form 10-K, etc.  The tax return has more detailed information that might expose business strategies to competitors. Why?
  3. How far?:  If we publicly disclose corporate tax returns, why not those of high income individuals?  Why stop there? Why not make every tax return public?  Of course, a publicly-traded corporation already has to make public its key financial data on sales and income. Individuals do not. But concerns about whether high income individuals are paying their "fair share" could lead to calls for them to disclose their tax information, particularly if we have already opened the door to making other tax data public.
  4. Helpful?: Even if tax returns of public companies were made public, we'd still have inversions. The public disclosure would not end the need to effectively manage all costs (including income taxes) in our globally competitive business arena.
What do you think?

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