StoneMor Partners LP, the publicly traded firm that specializes in running cemeteries, expects to see handsome profits in coming years as baby boomers age and die. But unlike its largest rivals, its corporate tax bill from the federal government will be zero.
StoneMor is among the many businesses organized so they don’t pay a penny in federal corporate income tax. And yet such firms don’t employ an army of accountants to shield profits in complex tax shelters. Their enviable tax position is perfectly legal and has been encouraged by Congress and state governments. Known as pass-throughs, these firms pass along profits to investors who pay taxes on those sums through their individual returns.
This exception has been around for decades, and has been broadened repeatedly in recent years as a way to spur entrepreneurship. Millions of small businesses have organized this way, but so too have some behemoths like private-equity giant Blackstone Group LP, construction firm Bechtel Group Inc. and pipeline firm Kinder Morgan.
The percentage of U.S. corporations organized as nontaxable businesses has grown from about 24% in 1986 to about 69% as of 2008, according to the latest-available Internal Revenue Service data. The percentage of all firms is far higher when partnerships and sole proprietors are included.
Old-line U.S. public companies generally remain taxable, and many complain that they must pay higher effective rates than foreign competitors. They are eagerly seeking a cut in the 35% U.S. corporate-tax rate, now one of the highest in the world. But increasingly they find themselves at odds politically with the growing breed of nontaxable firms.
By some estimates, more than 60% of U.S. businesses with profits of $1 million are structured as pass-throughs, the highest rate among developed countries. Their popularity is one big reason why federal corporate tax collections amounted to just 1.3% of GDP in 2010, well below their mark of 2.7% in 2006 and far beneath their peak of 6.1% in 1952.
Almost everyone in Washington appears to agree that the Byzantine corporate tax code needs a revamp. But on this point, the business community is split, presenting perhaps the biggest obstacle to any overhaul.
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