Editors’ Note: The results of the tax reform legislation for FedEx are a real-world example of wealth inequality and lobby influence. Readers should be aware that both FedEx and UPS as cited in this article have lobbied to hamper the United States Postal Service’s competition with their interests. Thus, while USPS has been saddled with an odd mandate to pay into the future liabilities of its pension and medical funds, taxpayers have shouldered the tax reductions enjoyed by FedEx and UPS.
Excerpted from the November 17, 2019, New York Times.
WASHINGTON — In the 2017 fiscal year, FedEx owed more than $1.5 billion in taxes. The next year, it owed nothing. What changed was the Trump administration’s tax cut — for which the company had lobbied hard.
The public face of its lobbying effort, which included a tax proposal of its own, was FedEx’s founder and chief executive, Frederick Smith, who repeatedly took to the airwaves to champion the power of tax cuts. “If you make the United States a better place to invest, there is no question in my mind that we would see a renaissance of capital investment,” he said on an August 2017 radio show hosted by Larry Kudlow, who is now chairman of the National Economic Council.
FedEx reaped big savings, bringing its effective tax rate from 34 percent in fiscal year 2017 to less than zero in fiscal year 2018, meaning that, overall, the government technically owed it money.
Four months later, President Trump signed into law the $1.5 trillion tax cut that became his signature legislative achievement. FedEx reaped big savings, bringing its effective tax rate from 34 percent in fiscal year 2017 to less than zero in fiscal year 2018, meaning that, overall, the government technically owed it money. But it did not increase investment in new equipment and other assets in the fiscal year that followed, as Mr. Smith said businesses like his would.
Nearly two years after the tax law passed, the windfall to corporations like FedEx is becoming clear. A New York Times analysis of data compiled by Capital IQ shows no statistically meaningful relationship between the size of the tax cut that companies and industries received and the investments they made. If anything, the companies that received the biggest tax cuts increased their capital investment by less, on average, than companies that got smaller cuts.
FedEx’s financial filings show that the law has so far saved it at least $1.6 billion. Its financial filings show it owed no taxes in the 2018 fiscal year overall. Company officials said FedEx paid $2 billion in total federal income taxes over the past 10 years.
As for capital investments, the company spent less in the 2018 fiscal year than it had projected in December 2017, before the tax law passed. It spent even less in 2019. Much of its savings have gone to reward shareholders: FedEx spent more than $2 billion on stock buybacks and dividend increases in the 2019 fiscal year, up from $1.6 billion in 2018, and more than double the amount the company spent on buybacks and dividends in fiscal year 2017.
FedEx’s use of its tax savings is representative of corporate America. Companies have already saved upward of $100 billion more on their taxes than analysts predicted when the law was passed. Companies that make up the S&P 500 index had an average effective tax rate of 18.1 percent in 2018, down from 25.9 percent in 2016, according to an analysis of securities filings. More than 200 of those companies saw their effective tax rates fall by 10 points or more. Nearly three dozen, including FedEx, saw their tax rates fall to zero or reported that tax authorities owed them money.
The law cut the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, and allowed companies to deduct the full cost of new equipment investments in the year that they make them.
The law cut the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, and allowed companies to deduct the full cost of new equipment investments in the year that they make them. Those cuts stimulated the American economy in 2018, helping to push economic growth to 2.5 percent for the year and fueling a boost in hiring. Business investment rose at an 8.8 percent rate in the first quarter of 2018, and was nearly as strong in the second quarter.
Mr. Smith, 75, a former Marine who built FedEx from a small package delivery service into a global logistics giant, was no stranger to pressing for lower taxes. He tried, without success, to get President Barack Obama to cut the corporate rate. But with Mr. Trump’s ascension, the corporate chief began a one-man campaign to convince Washington that now was the moment. He met with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Nov. 17, just days after the election, and appeared alongside the president at official events.
In a conference call with analysts the month after Mr. Trump’s election, Alan Graf, FedEx’s chief financial officer, called the prospect of a 20 percent corporate tax rate “a mighty fine Christmas gift.”
Mr. Smith teamed up with his competitor, David Abney, the chairman and chief executive of UPS, to push for a tax overhaul, including jointly writing an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
FedEx spent $10 million on lobbying in 2017, in line with previous spending, with much of it focused on tax issues, according to federal records. Its team pushed hard to shape the bill behind the scenes, meeting regularly with House and Senate committee staff who were writing the provisions.
Mr. Smith met with Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in February 2017, and on May 26 he spoke on the phone with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, according to Mr. Mnuchin’s public calendar.
Eight months after Congress passed the law, Mr. Trump celebrated the tax cuts by hosting Mr. Smith and other business leaders at a dinner at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. He singled out Mr. Smith several times, bantering with him about a term paper that Mr. Smith had written while a student at Yale. The paper formed the basis for the creation of FedEx.
The company also accelerated previously scheduled wage increases for hourly employees by six months. It gave performance-based pay to other managers and said it would invest $1.5 billion over seven years in its Indianapolis shipping hub. The company also bought 24 Boeing freight jets for $6.6 billion, a purchase officials say would not have happened without tax cuts.
But the company ended its 2018 fiscal year having spent $240 million less on capital investments than it predicted it would in December 2017, shortly before the tax cuts passed. The company’s capital spending declined by nearly $175 million in fiscal 2019.
This year, the company cut back employee bonuses and has offered buyouts in an effort to reduce labor costs in the face of slowing global growth.
This year, the company cut back employee bonuses and has offered buyouts in an effort to reduce labor costs in the face of slowing global growth. The company has also added to its pension fund, a move that carried the benefit of reducing its tax liability even further.
FedEx reduced its tax liability in part by taking advantage of a provision in the law that allowed companies to immediately deduct the value of any capital investments they make in a given year. But its biggest gains were from the cut in the corporate rate. FedEx had been carrying a large amount of future tax liabilities on its balance sheet — and when the corporate rate fell to 21 percent, those liabilities shrank too.
BREAKING NEWS FedEx took great exception to the Times story: