ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: Laws, regulations rippling through corporate America

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They say that one way to avoid getting angry at the car traffic around you is to imagine that the drivers are people you know.

Likewise, it is said that substituting the words “other people” for the word “government” in the discussion of government’s obligations and responsibilities toward its citizens can take some of the thunder out of the latter’s demands.

That’s no great insight, of course. We want to impress, please and be liked by people. But organizations, bureaucracies or even cars are another matter.

In the business world, the faceless entity we seem to love to hate is undoubtedly the corporation. But corporations are led by people. And the decisions those people make can affect us in many ways, not all of which are anticipated.

In fact, it is the unintended consequences of laws and regulations aimed at controlling the perceived excesses of corporations that have often had the most lasting impact.

The breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in the beginning of the last century, after all, had little impact on the industry itself, which remains to this day dominated by giant companies. But it did turn John D. Rockefeller into the wealthiest man in America, and one of the most influential philanthropists when he was forced to sell many of his assets.

In 2002, Congress passed and President Bush signed into law the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, aimed at tightening accounting standards and toughening penalties for corporate financial malfeasance. The law’s lopsided vote margin in both houses of Congress was a reaction to the public cry over the criminal excesses of public companies like Enron and Tyco, which destroyed the assets of thousands of workers and stockholders.

Researchers are still sorting out the full spectrum of reactions to SOX, as it has come to be known, but several are already noticeable. Certainly it has helped create one of the strongest markets for the accounting profession we’ve seen in years. But has it given companies an added reason to consider a private buyout that would free them from the compliance costs entirely?

One of the biggest stories in corporate America this year has been the number of very large public companies that have been taken private. It’s hardly the first time Wall Street has gone overboard on a financial fad, but it’s remarkable, nonetheless, as even big names like Viacom are said to be thinking about buyouts.

Certainly, the cash from heady profits in recent years, coalesced into aggressively managed private equity firms, is pushing these deals ahead. But one must wonder whether escaping the scrutiny of the financial regulatory agencies has an added appeal in this post-SOX world.

Another development on the corporate front has been largely running beneath the radar. That is the increasing use of effective tax-avoidance strategies by corporations, particularly for corporate taxes collected at the state level.

The big question for state corporate profits tax is the decision of “how much” of the company resides in a state. Many of those strategies have been out there for years. A few tax-haven states, for instance, do not tax certain forms of corporate income, which has caused some companies to create subsidiaries there to capture the tax benefits. These subsidiaries then charge the rest of the company for services, so that most, say, interest income is placed in a state where interest income is taxed less.

But at least part of corporate tax avoidance at the state level has been exactly as intended. A San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank study suggests that much of the decline in effective tax rates has been due to the more aggressive rollout of tax credits for new investment and research. Taxes have fallen because these companies are doing what their state governments want-investing in facilities in the state.

Perhaps corporations are more humanlike than we admit. Neither likes to pay taxes.

Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at

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