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Courtesy Wal-Mart and Tesla

Walmart and Tesla have a lot in common when it comes to taxes

Jun 24, 2015

Walmart and Tesla have more in common than you might think. Strong founders with stories designed to capture the imagination of consumers have fueled both brands—around low prices in the case of Walmart, and around the future of electric autos at Tesla. While Tesla is looking for cash—and presumably profits, according to a Wall Street Journal report on Sunday, Walmart is looking to increase profits after a miss last quarter.

Industry disrupters: Walmart (wmt) has succeeded in changing wide swathes of the U.S. retail landscape for food, clothing, and household goods—and in the process supplanted mom-and-pop stores in less populated communities. Tesla (tsla) is still working to disrupt the car retail model, which is heavily dependent on dealerships—some of which are smaller and family-owned. A report by Morgan Stanley at the end of May suggested that while many car dealers still oppose Tesla’s online presence, larger publicly traded dealerships might feel differently. Tesla’s flashy initiatives may also have sped innovation in electric car manufacturing at larger auto companies.

Role in the environment: Tesla’s cars appeal to those who care about the environment. Walmart, following unprecedented joint labor and environmental group opposition a decade ago, began to pioneer environmental changes to its store design, processes, and supply chains. But both companies have been accused of overstating their beneficial effects on the environment, also known as greenwashing.

Earlier this month, Walmart received favorable press for its participation in a White House initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a few days earlier, NPR cited a Food Chain Workers Alliance report that said as of March, Walmart was only 38% of the way toward reaching a goal set in 2010 “to cut 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions out of its supply chain by the end of 2015.” The Guardian reported two weeks ago on environmental concerns surrounding Tesla’s lithium ion batteries.

Tax avoidance, incentives, and government subsidies: But perhaps the most interesting similarity is that both companies have been in the tax spotlight this month. A report by Americans for Tax Fairness last week found that Walmart houses “$76 billion in assets” in a “network of 78 subsidiaries and branches in 15 overseas tax havens, which may be used to minimize foreign taxes where it has retail operations and to avoid U.S. tax on those foreign earnings.” Citing a study researched by the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, a Bloomberg article pointed out that “units in Luxembourg—where the company has no stores—reported $1.3 billion in profits between 2010 and 2013 and paid tax at a rate of less than 1 percent, according to the report.”

A report by the Los Angeles Times at the end of May said, “Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support” in the form of “a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans, and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.”

This spotlight is not new for Walmart or Tesla founder Elon Musk. Over the years, Walmart has received incentives for building stores that have drawn community ire. And the government assistance that some of the mega-retailer's low wage workers receive is well documented. In a December Fortune article entitled "Inside Elon Musk's $1.4 billion score," Peter Elkind described Musk's negotiations with various states for cash infusions—and the aid Tesla ended up getting from Nevada.

Bloomberg reported last week that the Group of Twenty nations want “companies to disclose to regulators where they book profits, employees and sales” and “Americans for Tax Fairness called on the European Union to open investigations into whether the Luxembourg tax benefits [Walmart receives] constitute illegal state aid. The EU has issued preliminary findings that this was indeed the case with companies using similar strategies in various countries, including as Starbucks in the Netherlands, Apple in Ireland and Fiat SpA in Luxembourg.”

In a May article for Fortune, I described new reporting that may be required soon in Europe: “Large companies [would] be required to provide a country by country analysis of net income, tax figures, and ‘public subsidies received.’ Depending on how expansive the disclosure is, the requirement could help keep companies from gaming the international tax systems and also increase company and stakeholder awareness about the benefits businesses receive from governments.”

The U.S. tax code includes many wealth transfers. In the U.S., childless property owners support schools that benefit corporations, which gain access to an educated workforce. To understand the sustainable value of a company, it’s important to understand what a company receives from governments and the public (assets of all kinds), what a company is able to create with the assistance of governments, and what a company provides to the public (in the form of both benefits and costs, such as environmental ones).

Expansive worldwide disclosure, including the income statement and balance sheet impacts, would be beneficial, not only for the public and investors but for chest thumping founders as well. In early June, Musk explained to the Los Angeles Times that “his companies don't need the estimated $4.9 billion they enjoy in government support" and “are ‘a pittance’ compared with government support of the oil and gas industry.” Walmart and Tesla demonstrate that we need a better national conversation on private and public rights and responsibilities—and sharing the wealth in a way that makes sense. To do that, we all need better information.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://www.thevaluealliance.com), an independent board education and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She has been a regular contributor to Fortune since April 2010 and is the author of two books on corporate governance and valuation.

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