A new academic study pours cold water on the notion that companies that promote their social responsibility efforts are any better at paying their taxes than regular corporations.
The researchers looked at companies like the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which scored high on ratings of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, but recently unveiled plans to acquire Allergan and move its corporate tax address to low-tax Ireland.
They found that a higher rating by the MSCI Index on corporate social responsibility—which encompasses areas as community commitment, diversity, employee relations, environment, and product safety and quality—is associated with lower taxes paid. In a large sample of U.S. companies in which the effective tax rate averaged 26 percent, those ranked in the top fifth in CSR paid an average of 1.7 percentage points below what the remainder paid, or approximately 6 percent less after controlling for other differences that have been found to affect tax rates.
The study, by David Guenther, Angela K. Davis and Linda K. Krull of the University of Oregon, and Brian M. Williams of Indiana University, appears in the January issue of the American Accounting Association’s journal “The Accounting Review.”
"Our findings are inconsistent with the notion that the U.S. corporate sector generally views paying the minimum in taxes as compromising integrity or good ethics,” Guenther said in a statement.
In addition, high-CSR firms were considerably more likely than others to engage in tax lobbying. According to the study, “firms in the highest quintile of CSR Index have approximately a 158 percent higher probability of lobbying for taxes than other firms.”
The researchers pointed to a recent incident in the United Kingdom where a prominent member of Parliament criticized Starbucks and other multinationals for, in her words, “using the letter of tax laws…to immorally minimize their tax obligations.” Starbucks then promised to pay approximately 10 million pounds in each of the following two years regardless of whether the company was profitable. The study's authors wondered whether “public pressure may mitigate the impact of tax rules on corporate investment decisions, at least for a subset of firms.”
The researchers drew no conclusion as to exactly what motivates the negative CSR-taxpaying relationship they uncovered. One possibility is simply that "socially responsible firms may not consider the payment of corporate taxes to be the best means by which to accomplish their social-responsibility goals" and even believe that "paying taxes detracts from social welfare." They cited economic research that has "demonstrated that corporate taxes tend to decrease investment" or which argues that "for-profit corporations are more efficient than governments in allocating resources." They noted that "negative statements about corporate taxes in firms' sustainability reports generally argue that high tax rates discourage innovation and investment and harm job creation, which limit firms' ability to contribute to social welfare."
A more cynical interpretation of the research's findings, the authors acknowledge, is that firms "engage in CSR to create 'moral capital' to reduce the consequences of their involvement in negative events or publicity." In other words, "firms strategically engage in CSR to create a more favorable reputation among various stakeholders and reduce the possibility of negative attention or regulatory action directed at aggressive tax practices."