Spreadsheets at Dawn: The New Tax Battle Is All About Data

Advocates are hoping that the more information they can bring to the surface, the more they can bend companies’ or voters’ behavior with it.

“What we want to create is sort of a living thing that puts companies on notice,” said Martin Whittaker, chief executive of Just Capital, a nonpartisan group that has compiled data on how 90 public corporations plan to spend their tax savings, and which will send letters to 875 companies on Wednesday seeking more information on those plans. Its initial release includes breakdowns of how individual companies will allocate their tax savings, based on their public statements and disclosures.

Paul Tudor Jones, a hedge fund titan who is a co-founder of Just Capital, said he hopes publication of that data will lead to a dialogue among executives and the general public “about what’s the most equitable way to distribute this windfall we just received.” By the middle of the year, he added, the group should have enough information from public disclosures and survey responses to get a fuller understanding of where the money is actually headed. “We’ll learn a lot,” he said.

The group’s initial findings suggest shareholders of 90 large corporations — including Home Depot, Pfizer and Capital One — are reaping far more of the benefits of the law than workers or consumers. Pay or benefit increases for workers account for 6 percent of the savings those companies report from the law, the group calculates, while job creation accounts for 22 percent. More than half of the money going directly to workers takes the form of one-time bonuses, as opposed to permanent raises or benefits.

Those bonus announcements have dominated headlines, though, in part because of the tireless compilation work of Mr. Kartch, the vice president for communications at Americans for Tax Reform. “Nobody was expecting those announcements,” Mr. Kartch said; Republicans had largely argued that corporate rate cuts would unleash business investment, which would raise productivity and, with it, worker pay.

When companies began announcing them in late December, after the bill had passed but before Mr. Trump had signed it, Mr. Kartch sent an email to staff members and affiliates of his organization, asking them to flag “any statements you see from companies raising wages/paying bonuses/hiring due to the tax bill.” He said he would keep a running list and include smaller businesses that “would otherwise be overlooked by national media.”

Other conservatives, including Republican leaders in Congress, followed suit, but Mr. Kartch’s crowdsourced list seemed to catch the most fire. Mr. Trump tweeted an article about it after it reached 100 companies. The influential Drudge Report linked to it for a day on its home page. Tips poured in, about bosses passing out bonus checks in break rooms or posting about them on company bulletin boards. A 19-year-old fan of the law emails Mr. Kartch frequently with any bonus news he can find. Conservatives credit the stream of bonus news, in part, for the bill’s improving poll numbers.

“It will get more detailed with time,” Mr. Kartch said, “but for now, it’s all the raw material up there for anybody who wants it.”

Bonus and wage announcements are only one slice of the law’s impact. In early December, researchers in the office of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, began tracking another slice: the surge in stock buybacks that has accompanied the law. The team scours earnings calls, Google and social media for buyback announcements, and frequently blasts the results out to reporters. Mr. Schumer has taken to denouncing the buyback increases regularly on the Senate floor.

Outside groups are compiling a much broader array of data on what companies plan to do with their savings. Morgan Stanley has surveyed its stock analysts over their expectations of how companies they cover will spend their tax savings. Last week, its researchers released a 23-page report, counting appendixes, that contends stock traders may be overvaluing some companies by underestimating how much of their tax savings they will invest in workers and operations, as opposed to passing on to shareholders.

Just Capital is hoping to round out the picture further, by pushing companies that have not disclosed their tax windfall plans to answer 11 questions — including spelling out how much of the savings they will put toward raising workers’ compensation, lowering consumer prices and minimizing environmental impact. Mr. Jones said the group would follow up weekly, as necessary, with phone calls and other attempts to collect the information.

“My attitude is,” he said, “we’re going to get the data one way or another.”

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