The CARES Act, signed into law on March 27 to combat the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the largest economic stimulus in US history. Among its many provisions, CARES also contained several corporate tax breaks. Ostensibly, these tax breaks provided immediate liquidity and incentives for firms to avoid layoffs. However, the tax breaks have received a lot of criticism, with some calling them a “giveaway” to large corporations, and several Democratic politicians have introduced measures to scale them back.
An analysis of SEC filings—in which publicly-traded US firms are required to discuss material events—since the passage of CARES reveals the following:
- Most firms (61%) do not discuss the CARES tax provisions in their filings, suggesting the tax provisions did not materially impact most publicly-traded US firms.
- The most commonly discussed tax provision was the NOL carryback rule, which allows firms to recoup prior taxes paid. While this provision can provide immediate liquidity, it only applies to firms that were unprofitable in the years immediately prior to the pandemic. The other tax provisions were discussed by fewer than 15% of firms.
- The firms that were most likely to discuss the NOL carryback provision were those with pre-pandemic losses and large stock price declines during the pandemic, rather than those operating in states or sectors with large increases in unemployment.
- In contrast, the payroll tax deferral, which was designed to provide liquidity to a broad sample of firms, was more likely to be discussed by firms with more employees and lower cash holdings. And the employee retention credit, intended to encourage firms to keep employees on payroll while they were not working, was more likely to be discussed by firms operating in industries and states with larger unemployment changes. Thus, these two tax provisions appear more likely to benefit firms hardest hit by the pandemic.
- Certain firms (including those that eroded their liquidity with large shareholder payouts and engaged in substantial lobbying during the CARES Act debate) may have avoided discussing these tax breaks in their SEC filings for fear of negative public attention.
The authors acknowledge that firms may benefit from the provisions without discussing them in their SEC filings, and thus the full picture as to how these tax breaks affected U.S. firms will not be clear for some time. However, these early findings cast some doubt on the idea that the CARES corporate tax provisions provided significant liquidity and incentives to retain employees for most publicly-traded U.S. firms. Furthermore, the most frequently discussed tax provision—the NOL carryback—may have primarily benefitted the firms (and their shareholders) whose stock price had deteriorated the most prior to CARES, rather than the firms operating in areas hardest hit by the pandemic.