Even leaving aside the unusual move by the IRS, Wells Fargo is "one of the most active companies in entering into tax shelters," Willens says.

A Wells Fargo spokesman disputed this characterization in an emailed statement to TheStreet.

According to the statement, the CTJ report "takes data out of context to advance an agenda. The truth is that over the past 10 years Wells Fargo has paid more than $30 billion in income taxes to federal and state authorities and billions more in other taxes, and it fulfills all tax obligations. The years cited by the study were unusual for Wells Fargo, as results included significant losses as a consequence of its acquisition of Wachovia, which when realized reduced Wells Fargo's taxable income."

The statement goes on to say that "a substantial portion of the Wachovia losses had been realized by the end of 2010, and based on results for the first three quarters 2011, Wells Fargo expects to pay significant income taxes for 2011."

Wells Fargo's Wachovia acquisition is just one example of the underappreciated role tax loopholes have played in helping U.S. companies recover from the 2008 crisis. Particularly noteworthy is General Motors ( GM), which got a big tax benefit from its purchase of Americredit last year.

That deal also generated a bit of controversy when it was announced in July of last year, with Senator Chuck Grassley (R, Iowa) wondering why GM was making a $3.5 billion acquisition before it had repaid bail out money to taxpayers and calling for an investigation.

The acquisition closed about three months after it was announced, though an audit of the tax benefits to GM by TARP Inspector General Neil Barofsky was underway when Barofsky stepped down from that post in March of this year. The current status of the audit could not be learned in time for publication of this article.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.
Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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