Amazon is drawing the attention of government authorities in the U.S. and in Europe for its practice of valuing technology assets far differently in the two regions, reportedly to gain tax advantages.
European competition regulators are investigating whether or not Amazon received illegal state aid from Luxembourg, the tax-friendly country that is home to the e-commerce giant's technology assets, while in the U.S., the Internal Revenue Services sent Amazon a notice of adjustment in May stating that the company owes $1.5 billion in back taxes, Bloomberg reports.
Amazon has denied any doing anything illegal, saying it pays all taxes required in all of its operating regions, and has sued in U.S. Tax Court to block the IRS’s adjustment.
Amazon is attracting a lot of attention for this tax dance, but it does not appear to be doing anything all that differently from what many of the largest global companies do to shave millions of dollars off of potentially huge tax bills.
It's something that has been done for years by technology companies in particular and that own large amounts of intellectual property that is then licensed by their own operating units (and, in some cases, by partners or customers.) As Bloomberg points out, Facebook and Apple are just two examples of technology corporations in Amazon's weight class that have moved such assets to international tax havens.
This isn't Amazon's first tussle with tax regulations, of course. As an e-commerce retailer, it used to enjoy the benefits of selling products without sales tax, an advantage that became so deeply connected with Amazon that the online sale tax that has since been imposed is often called "the Amazon tax." Amazon now collects sales taxes on purchases in 28 states, but many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers probably haven't forgotten the way Amazon enjoyed this huge tax benefit early on.
You may not hear many brick-and-mortar merchants heaping criticism on Amazon this time around for socking away its technology assets in Luxembourg to gain tax advantages, however. Some of the biggest brick-and-mortar, such as Wal-Mart, reportedly have used similar practices.
We'll see how this tax battle plays out. A ruling on Amazon's lawsuit to block the IRS adjustment is expected this fall. If it loses that fight, and regulators in Europe decide Amazon also should owe more back taxes in that region, we could see a big bite taken out of Amazon's earnings in the coming months.