Amazon’s recent tax payments have drawn plenty of criticism, including rebukes from several Democratic presidential candidates. The company estimated a federal income tax burden of less than zero for both 2017 and 2018, at least according to one highly imperfect measure. Now, it’s apparently broken that streak with a $162 million bill — although that’s still a fraction of its roughly $13.3 billion US income, and we don’t know how much the company will actually pay.
Amazon filed its latest annual financial statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission last week, and it promoted the filing with a blog post explaining parts of its tax burden. The post publicized a $1 billion “federal income tax expense,” implicitly resetting the narrative that Amazon doesn’t pay federal taxes — something reported by a plethora of news outlets last year.
That number, unsurprisingly, is more complicated than it looks. Amazon’s 10-K filing lists a federal income tax provision of slightly over $1 billion. Approximately $162 million of that is “current” — that is, expected to be paid this year. The rest is deferred to a later date, thanks to rules that let companies delay paying taxes on long-term investments like equipment. That’s a much higher potential tax bill than 2017, when Amazon had negative balances of $137 million current and $202 million deferred taxes, or 2018, when it owed $565 million in deferred taxes but had a negative current balance of $129 million.
It’s still, however, a low number compared to Amazon’s total profits. “It’s not fair to say [Amazon] paid nothing” on federal taxes anymore, says Matthew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, whose reports have spurred coverage of Amazon’s taxes. “Clearly they’re not paying nothing. They’re paying very little.”
Gardner takes issue with the $1 billion claim, arguing that deferred taxes don’t tell us what Amazon will actually pay down the road — if, say, the tax rate gets cut in the future. Gardner also notes that these are just estimates, not Amazon’s actual tax returns. Companies don’t need to release these, so they largely remain a mystery — along with deductions that Amazon might make to lower the $162 million estimate.
As always, Amazon notes that it’s following the letter of the law, saying its taxes are “a reflection of our continued investments, compensation of our employees, and the current tax rules.” That’s exactly the problem for Gardner and others, though. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out Amazon when she proposed a new corporate tax last year, and other candidates have used it as a symptom of a broken US tax code. (Representatives for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the filing, and Andrew Yang’s office declined to comment.) Amazon isn’t the only company paying low taxes, but it’s one of the most prominent — even if its bill looks less egregious this year.