From a decades-long strategy of exploiting state sales tax loopholes to its ongoing “HQ2” sweepstakes, Amazon’s leaders have rarely turned down a chance to use the tax system as the source of their competitive advantage.
The online retail giant has built its business model on tax avoidance, and its latest financial filing makes it clear that Amazon continues to be insulated from the nation’s tax system. In 2017, Amazon reported $5.6 billion of U.S. profits and didn’t pay a dime of federal income taxes on it. The company’s financial statement suggests that various tax credits and tax breaks for executive stock options are responsible for zeroing out the company’s tax this year.
The company’s zero percent rate in 2017 reflects a longer term trend. During the previous five years, Amazon reported U.S. profits of $8.2 billion and paid an effective federal income tax rate of just 11.4 percent. This means the company was able to shelter more than two-thirds of its profits from tax during that five year period.
Incredibly, Amazon’s corporate tax goose egg for 2017 doesn’t include the effect of a second big tax disclosure: the $789 million one-time tax break the company projects it will receive due to the new tax law. While the Trump Administration’s corporate tax cuts generally took effect on January 1st, the law includes a grandfather clause for companies that (like Amazon) have managed to defer or postpone tax liability from prior years.
Instead of paying these deferred taxes at the previous 35 percent rate, Amazon now gets an extra reward for postponing the taxation of this income: a 40 percent discount from 35 to 21 percent. This is the source of Amazon’s $789 million windfall.
At a time when Amazon is pitting state and local governments against each other in a Hunger Games-style contest over the location of the company’s new headquarters, the company’s new disclosure should cause some consternation among the state officials who have been most willing to pony up billions of dollars in tax incentives. In each of these states, Amazon’s sales tax dodging has pushed brick and mortar retailers to the brink of extinction, and its spectacular federal corporate tax avoidance is very likely mirrored at the state level.
For states contemplating tax incentives for Amazon, the salient question is: what do you give a tax avoider who already has everything?
Amazon photo: Mike Seyfang, Flickr
Matthew Garder is a Senior Fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-profit, non-partisan research organization that provides timely, in-depth analyses on the effects of federal, state, and local tax policies. This article was originally published on ITEP’s JustTaxes blog.