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Amazon taxation becomes sticking point in talks on global levies

Isabel Gottlieb, Saleha Mohsin, Alessandra Migliaccio and Hamza Ali, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

A U.S.-driven effort to reach a global accord on taxing big tech companies’ overseas profits is getting bogged down over ensnaring one firm in particular: Amazon.com Inc.

A Treasury Department proposal, which was distributed to other governments earlier this month and has been seen by Bloomberg, would subject about 100 of the largest and most profitable companies to greater taxation in countries where the firms’ users and consumers are located, as opposed to the countries where they’re headquartered.

The idea is that the new rules would apply to any large companies that exceed certain numbers, yet to be determined, for their annual revenue and profit margin. Before Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this month jump-started efforts that the Trump administration had opposed, the talks focused on digital and “consumer-facing” businesses — definitions countries had struggled to reach agreement on.

The global talks, led by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are trying to address many countries’ concerns that tech giants — and other multinationals — aren’t being properly taxed under the current system of rules. The OECD effort seeks to replace the digital services taxes a growing number of countries are enacting to capture more revenue from companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

But Amazon’s unusual status as a low-margin tech giant is emerging as a sticking point in negotiations. Seattle-based Amazon recently reported a global operating margin across its businesses of 5.5%; that compares with Facebook’s margin of 45.5% and 27.5% at Google parent Alphabet Inc.

The U.S. proposal called for including only “the largest and most profitable” multinational corporations. It didn’t call for specific numbers, but both revenue and profitability thresholds would have to be set high to capture just 100 companies.

 

Two Italian government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Amazon should be covered and there’s no reason why a global tax accord can’t capture companies with narrow profit margins but high revenue. Italy, the euro area’s third-biggest economy, has imposed a 3% tax on companies with overall revenue above 750 million euros ($903 million) and revenue from digital services in Italy above 5.5 million euros.

A European Commission spokesperson said Tuesday that while the U.S. proposal offers a “promising opportunity” for progress toward a deal, “we should not forget what the initial policy rationale was: a fairer taxation of the digital economy. It is essential that any proposal on the table also addresses this challenge.” A French finance ministry official said they are still examining the U.S. proposal to determine if it would cover all digital multinationals.

The U.S., however, has long opposed an agreement that singles out a particular slice of the economy, such as rules that only affect digital companies, and the new Treasury proposal is intended to make the plan’s scope more quantitative and objective.

U.S. officials are aware that other finance ministries are trying to get low-margin companies captured within the profitability threshold, according to people familiar with the matter, who said Amazon is the target of these discussions. The U.S. continues to oppose efforts to target any single company or sector, said the people, who asked not to be identified.

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