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Democrats Introduce Bill to Quadruple Corporate Stock Buyback Tax

The bill comes on the heels of a record year for corporate profits – and for stock buybacks.

Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks during a United States Senate Committee on Finance hearing on October 19, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

With the backing of President Joe Biden, Democrats in the Senate are moving to quadruple the corporate stock buyback tax following a record year for stock buybacks, which topped $1 trillion among S&P 500 companies for the first time in 2022.

On Wednesday, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced a bill that would increase the stock buyback tax from 1 percent, as passed in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), to 4 percent. The lawmakers say that it would help cut down on tax avoidance for corporations and wealthy shareholders after the practice of stock buybacks exploded in popularity due to Republicans’ tax code overhaul in 2017.

“It is not lost on the American people that corporate profits have climbed right along with the prices that families have been paying for groceries, rent, gas and other basics over the last few years,” Wyden said in a statement about the bill. “To see big multinational corporations announcing record stock buybacks benefitting their executives and wealthy shareholders at a time when so many families are feeling squeezed by inflation is simply offensive.”

The bill is timely: Despite the new tax on buybacks, the practice of buybacks has reached a fever pitch amid high inflation rates largely driven by corporations jacking up prices in order to boost profits, which have broken records in recent months. Corporations announced stock buyback plans totalling $1.22 trillion in 2022, and companies are on track to beat that record again in 2023.

Stock buybacks have become extremely common in recent years as companies seek to line their shareholders’ and executives’ pockets with the excess profits they’ve made from price increases. They are eclipsing dividends as an option to enrich shareholders as they allow shareholders to avoid paying taxes; while dividends are treated as income for tax purposes, gains from buybacks aren’t taxed until a shareholder sells the stock.

The Donald Trump-backed corporate tax cuts massively opened the door to stock buybacks in 2017 by freeing up billions of dollars that corporations otherwise would have had to pay taxes on to use for buybacks. Companies have taken full advantage of this, and an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy published Monday found that, in the four years following the tax overhaul, S&P 500 companies collectively spent more on stock buybacks than they did on capital expenses like buildings, equipment and software.

The current explosion in stock buybacks has been a long time in the making, however, going even further back than the Trump tax cuts. Stock buybacks were all but illegal until the 1980s, viewed as a way to manipulate and inflate stock prices. But in 1982, President Ronald Reagan’s administration carved out a “safe harbor” for companies to be able to engage in stock buybacks, allowing corporations to spend significant portions of their profits on buybacks. A report in 2018 by the Roosevelt Institute found that, over the previous 15 years, firms spent about 94 percent of their profits on buybacks and dividends.

Biden has called for the stock buyback tax to be increased, and in his State of the Union address last week, the president said that quadrupling the tax will be necessary to get corporations to give back to the public, from whom they leeched those profits.

“Corporations ought to do the right thing. That’s why I propose we quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks and encourage long-term investments,” Biden said. He highlighted the profits of the fossil fuel industry, which raked in a record $200 billion in profits last year as gas prices soared.

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