GE: 7,000 tax returns, $0 U.S. tax bill

By Annalyn Censky, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Electric filed more than 7,000 income tax returns in hundreds of global jurisdictions last year, but when push came to shove, the company owed the U.S. government a whopping bill of $0.

How'd it pull off that trick? By losing lots of money.

Tax bills for 5 corporate giants
The 2009 income tax bills for America's biggest companies ranged from $0 to $15 billion. Here's why.

GE had plenty of earnings last year -- just not in the United States. For tax purposes, the company's U.S. operations lost $408 million, while its international businesses netted a $10.8 billion profit.

That left GE (GE, Fortune 500) with no U.S. profit left for Uncle Sam to tax. Corporations typically face a 35% federal income tax on their earnings. Thanks to its deductions and adjustments, GE reported an actual U.S. federal income tax rate of negative 10.5%. It got to add a "tax benefit" of $1.1 billion back into its reported earnings.

"This is the first time in at least decades that GE has reported negative U.S. pretax income and it reflects the worst economy since the Great Depression," Anne Eisele, GE's director of financial communications, said via e-mail.

But what about the $10.8 billion profit overseas? GE is "indefinitely" deferring income tax payments on those profits, Eisele said.

It may seem like accounting magic, but it's completely legit.

GE isn't the only "Top 5" company on this year's Fortune 500 list that owed no income taxes. Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), which suffered major losses in 2009, included a tax benefit of $1.9 billion in its annual profit.

"That's one way of escaping taxes," said Scott Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation. "Companies get to deduct their losses, so if there's no earnings, then they pay no income tax."

But GE isn't exactly escaping all tax-related pain: The company paid almost $23 billion in taxes to governments around the world from 2000 to 2009, Eisele said.

Plus, paying the accountants to crank out 7,000 tax returns can't be cheap.

And then there's all the lawyers needed to defend those returns. GE filed tax paperwork in more than 250 jurisdictions around the world last year. "We are under examination or engaged in tax litigation in many of these jurisdictions," the company dryly notes in its annual report.

GE may not owe the IRS, but it still has to file -- and its filings are epic.

In 2006, as the IRS ramped up its corporate e-filing program, the tax agency actually issued a celebratory press release when it processed GE's tax return. On paper, the return -- the nation's largest -- would have totaled a massive 24,000 pages. But instead, the IRS was able to upload the 237 MB document in under an hour.

Reading it, though, is apparently taking a bit longer. The IRS is currently auditing GE's tax returns for 2003-2007. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,804.80 26.65 0.15%
Nasdaq 4,765.38 16.98 0.36%
S&P 500 2,070.65 9.42 0.46%
Treasuries 2.18 -0.03 -1.27%
Data as of 11:25pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 17.62 0.09 0.51%
Apple Inc 111.78 -0.87 -0.77%
General Electric Co 25.62 0.48 1.91%
Intel Corp 36.37 -0.65 -1.76%
Microsoft Corp 47.66 0.14 0.29%
Data as of 4:04pm ET

Sections

New York Magazine reporter Jessica Pressler, who has been caught up in controversy this past week, will not be moving on to a new job at Bloomberg News. More

Investors beware: These 5 global crises are likely to rattle the stock market and world economy. More

Forums in dark corners of the web sell the kinds of hacks that befell Sony. More

Unilever sued Hampton Creek over its egg-free mayonnaise spread Just Mayo. But the company behind Best Foods and Hellman's mayonnaise has now dropped the lawsuit. More

The income of the top 1% jumped significantly in 2012, far outpacing inflation. Not only did this group make a larger share of the country's income, their share of total taxes also jumped from 35% to 38%. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.