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Companies publish annual financial statements directed at shareholders. Are these financial statements the same as those given to the tax collector? Do companies report the same profits to their shareholders and the tax collector? If not:

  • Why? (my guess: companies want to maximize profits shown to shareholders so that management looks good. On the other hand, companies want to minimize profits shown to the tax collector so that the tax bill is minimized)
  • Can I, as shareholder, obtain the financial statements submitted to the tax collector? If so, how?

Answers need not be specific to the United States.

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    It is indeed interesting to imagine if the law applied taxes on the exact same profits reported to investors. It would "trap" companies with much less room for socially unproductive "financial engineering". Perhaps it would also save enforcement resources of both the IRS and SEC since the motivation to fudge anything would be greatly attenuated by cancellation. If managers pump up earnings to please Wall Street, the company inexorably pays more taxes. If they lowball earnings to save on taxes, they disappoint Wall Street and their stock-based compensation suffers. Fat-cat catch-22!
    – nanoman
    Sep 5 '20 at 1:10
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Generally the reports are going to be different. Although there is certainly some room for companies to intentionally account for things in ways that boost shareholder profits and minimize taxes, however, that is a very small reason for the difference. Among the major reasons

  • When companies report earnings to investors, they're reporting consolidated financials. GE isn't generally going to break out the financials for every subsidiary in each different country, they're going to combine everything together so you get a good overview of GE's financial position. On the other hand, if you're reporting income for tax purposes, that is necessarily going to include only profits earned in that country not worldwide income. GE Canada reports income to Canada, GE Australia to Australia, etc. And many subsidiaries are going to have separate tax returns depending on the organization of the business.
  • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the standards used to prepare public financials do not always align with each country's tax code. For example, most countries only tax capital gains on assets you hold when you sell those assets. On the other hand, if you're preparing financials for company A that owns 10% of the stock in company B and those shares have doubled over the course of the year, you're going to want to reflect that in A's balance sheet even though it is not taxable. Different countries may allow different sorts of deductions from taxable income while investors would need to see that income.
  • Many transactions that cancel out in a company's statement of earnings to investors are very important from a tax perspective. Because different companies tax different sorts of revenue differently, a lot of tax breaks take the form of transactions between different parts of the company that produce a tax savings. Common ones tend to get rather creative names like the Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich. The specifics differ (and get complicated) but broadly what happens is that you want to shift profits (and types of profits) from high-tax countries to low-tax countries by arranging appropriate transactions between subsidiaries. So BigCo USA, say, establishes an Irish subsidiary that owns all of its intellectual property (IP), BigCo USA licenses that IP from BigCo Ireland thus lowering the profits of BigCo USA and transforming them into things like patent royalties in BigCo Ireland, and then taking advantage of the low Irish tax rates on that particular type of income. From the perspective of the consolidated financial statements that go to investors, these transactions always cancel out. From the perspective of national tax authorities, however, those transactions are critical.

If you want to get a company's tax returns, you'd need to check with the taxing authorities in each country in which the company does business. It is unlikely, however, that a significant number of states would make those records public. They also run to thousands of pages so it wouldn't be very useful for most investors.

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Tax returns and Financial statements are two different things. Every unit of money that moves through the company has a tax impact: it can be taxable, partially taxable, neutral, deductible, or a credit. Every unit of money also fits into a section of the financial statement.

Even if the same information is on both the financial reports and the tax return, the order of items and the exact categories is defined by two different organizations.

This is made even more complex by the fact that the exact date and location of the unit of money can differ. Tax laws can be local, regional, and national. The financial statements don't vary by location.

You as a minority shareholder will not be getting a copy of the tax returns. The method that they use to communicate to their shareholders regarding their financial health is the financial statement.

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