The chief executive of FedEx blasted a New York Times investigation detailing how the company wiped out its tax bill as an “outrageous distortion of the truth” Sunday and then challenged its publisher to a debate on federal tax policy.
CEO Fred Smith did not specify any particular errors in the report, which said the shipping giant’s tax bill went from $1.5 billion in 2017 to zero in 2018 after President Donald Trump’s tax cuts slashed FedEx’s effective tax rate from 34% to less than zero. The tax cut, which Smith lobbied for extensively, was framed as a means of spurring business investment, but FedEx apparently has done the opposite. It spent less on capital investments in 2018 than it did the year before and even less in 2019, according to the Times, and instead has funneled most of those savings back to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
Smith condemned the Times’ report in a Sunday night statement as “factually incorrect” without elaboration and made his unusual demand. He also criticized the Times for paying zero federal income tax in 2017 on earnings of $111 million, and for significantly reducing its own capital investments in 2018.
“I hereby challenge A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times and the business section editor to a public debate in Washington, D.C. with me and the FedEx corporate vice president of tax,” Smith said in a statement. The focus of the debate should be federal tax policy and the relative societal benefits of business investments and the enormous intended benefits to the United States economy, especially lower and middle class wage earners.”
Danielle Rhoades Ha, the Times’ vice president of communications, said Smith’s challenge was “clearly a stunt” and an attempt to distract from the paper’s reporting.
“FedEx’s colorful response does not actually challenge a single fact in our story,” Rhoades Ha said in a statement emailed to The Post. “We’re confident in the accuracy of our reporting.”
A former Marine officer and decorated Vietnam War veteran, Smith founded FedEx in 1971. The concept for the business came from a term paper he wrote at Yale University in 1965, while he was an undergraduate. He originally named the company Federal Express because he thought the patriotic association with the word “federal” suggested “an interest in nationwide economic activity,” according to FedEx’s website. In its first 26 months, the company lost $29 million. Smith famously helped keep his business afloat with money he won at blackjack tables in Las Vegas.
Smith was an early champion of Trump’s tax law, which slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, and said it would allow the company to spend more on hiring, new equipment and technology. Before the law went into effect in January 2018, FedEx predicted it would fuel a $1.3 billion increase in annual profits.
Smith has been CEO for most of FedEx’s history. He had been planning to hand over the reins until his heir apparent abruptly retired in February, the Wall Street Journal reported. The company changed its retirement rules to allow him to stay on as CEO after he turned 75 in August.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Taylor Telford