When filing tax returns, companies must report whether they have turned a profit or lost money. If they have made a profit, they must pay the appropriate taxes. On the other hand, if they have suffered a loss, they may “carry forward” that loss to reduce future tax bills.
A company that loses $100 million in one year and profits $500 million the following year will pay taxes on only $400 million of the profit, thanks to the reserved tax loss. That $100 million tax loss “carry forward” has clear monetary value: At today’s corporate tax rate of 35 percent, a company could reduce its tax bill by $35 million.
The basic concept of carrying forward past losses is an important feature of U.S. tax law, but it opens a potential loophole. A business that wishes to lower its taxes might acquire companies with enormous past losses just to minimize its tax burden. To prevent this, U.S. tax law since 1986 has limited carry-forward losses when a company changes ownership.
To be sure, the American International Group suffered huge losses. The company hemorrhaged billions of dollars in late 2008, and it was rushing toward bankruptcy. AIG survived only because U.S. taxpayers pumped in funds and acquired majority ownership of the company. Absent this assistance, it is highly likely that AIG would have been broken into parts and sold to the highest private-sector bidders — and had that happened, it is highly unlikely that the company’s losses would have been permitted to carry forward.
By any reasonable definition, the company changed ownership: A controlling stake passed from its stockholders to the federal government. As such, AIG should have been limited in rolling over past losses. Beginning in 2008, however, the U.S. Treasury jumped in with a special ruling that the financial rescue did not constitute a change in ownership. AIG was thus permitted to preserve its pre-bailout losses on its books, and now the company is using those losses to show enormous profits and dodge the taxes it owes on the billions it is earning today.