S Corp ESOP Legislation Benefits and Costs: Public Policy and Tax Analysis
Samuel Zell’s acquisition of the Tribune Company in December 2007 using an S corporation employee stock ownership plan (S ESOP) brought S ESOPs to national attention. An S ESOP is a trust that holds shares of an S corporation (a closely held corporation whose shareholders are taxed on a pass-through basis similarly to partners in a partnership) for the benefit of the corporation’s employees. S ESOPs, which have only existed since 1998 are not as well known as C ESOPs, an ESOP that holds shares of a C corporation (a separately taxed corporation). Enron, Polaroid and United Airlines, all of which had ESOPs when they went bankrupt, were C corporations. Perhaps because they have only existed for ten years, little academic attention has focused on S ESOPs. In this paper we draw on the extensive existing employee ownership literature to describe the benefits and costs to employees, to firms and to society at large from the legislation that authorizes S ESOPs, and, where possible, we quantify these costs and benefits. We estimate that annual contributions to S ESOPs on behalf of employees total $14 billion, which represent additional compensation that would not have been paid without an ESOP. Annual gains attributable to increased job stability also save employees approximately $3 billion annually. Accumulated stakes, which are essentially forced savings and usually do not displace other savings, lead to additional annual accruals of $34 billion. Employers pay for ESOP contributions out of firm-level productivity and sales gains of $33 billion annually attributable to employee ownership. We estimate that one quarter of the annual gain, $8 billion ultimately goes to the federal treasury, which thereby also benefits from the adoption of S ESOPs.