A new Amazon blog post that appeared right after the company released its latest (and very good) quarterly report touts the company's benefits to the U.S. economy. These included 500,000 jobs at Amazon (more than 2 million, according to Amazon's reckoning, when you consider businesses that sell through Amazon and other "ripple effects"). More than $9 billion in sales tax and use tax (a replacement for sales tax) paid to various states. And, it noted, Amazon has "over $1 billion in federal tax expense."

Note the careful wording of "tax expense," as opposed to taxes already paid, or to be paid in 2020. That's because the vast majority of that $1 billion likely won't be paid anytime soon.

You have probably heard that Amazon pays zero federal income tax. That's true, or at least it's been true, thanks to a combination of the business-friendly tax reform law passed in 2017 and Amazon's philosophy of investing heavily in its own business, which means the company did not turn a profit for much of its history. In 2018, Amazon made $11 billion in profits before taxes, paid no taxes, and received a $129 million tax rebate. This was due to a combination of carryforward losses from its unprofitable years, tax credits for investments in R&D and the fact that it pays people in stock options, which often create deductions for employers when employees exercise those options.

$14.5 billion operating income.

In 2019, Amazon had $14.5 billion in operating income, according to its most recent filing, and it says it owes $1 billion in federal tax, which comes out to about 6 percent of that income. But according to regulatory filings reviewed by GeekWire, Amazon plans to pay $162 million in federal income tax now, and another $900 sometime later on, taking deferrals to which it is legally entitled. 

When, exactly, will the rest of the $900 million be paid? I posed this question to an Amazon spokesperson who declined to comment beyond what it says in the blog post. And indeed, tax law is complex and payments are dependent on financial results which change over time, so that Amazon may not know when it has to pay that $900 million. In the meantime, it is paying the initial $162 million, which isn't exactly chump change, even though it represents only about 0.11 percent of the company's operating income.

You can't blame Amazon for any of this. After all, you and I don't pay taxes any earlier than we need to -- why should we expect a giant corporation to behave any diff differently? But the company published that blog post to proudly tell the world how much it pays in taxes. So it should be prepared to answer questions about when.

Published on: Jan 31, 2020
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