Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway may be among top payers of new minimum tax

Researchers at the University of North Carolina Tax Center analyzed securities filings to determine what companies would have paid if the tax had been in place last year. They found that fewer than 80 publicly traded U.S. companies would have paid any corporate minimum tax by 2021, and only six — including Amazon and Warren Buffett’s conglomerate — would have paid half of the estimated $32 billion in revenue the tax would have generated.

The tax, which takes effect in January, is the largest revenue-generating provision in the Democrats’ climate, health and tax legislation. The provision, expected to generate $222 billion over a decade, changes tax incentives and complicates corporate tax decisions. Democrats aimed the provision at large corporations that report profits to shareholders but pay relatively little in taxes.

Berkshire Hathaway would have paid $8.3 billion last year if the new tax law had been in place, according to UNC estimates.


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Michelle Bishop/Bloomberg News

“The ones that are actually paying a lot are just not very many companies at all,” said Jeff Hoopes, an accounting professor at UNC Chapel Hill who is one of the study’s authors. “My guess is that it won’t be the same companies every single year.”

Although this was not the purpose of the law, it could have an impact on some of the wealthiest Americans. Some Democrats proposed direct taxes on billionaires’ unrealized capital gains earlier in the legislative process. Although not passed, the new corporate minimum tax would increase the tax burden on some wealthy shareholders, such as Warren Buffett at Berkshire and Jeff Bezos at Amazon.

Mr. Buffett owned 16% of Berkshire Hathaway’s stock earlier this year, while Mr. Bezos owned nearly 13% of Amazon, securities filings show. Representatives for Messrs. Bezos and Buffett declined to comment.

Corporate tax directors and accounting firms also analyze the law, find out how they are affected and prepare to lobby over regulations. Few have publicly estimated its impact.

The UNC analysis comes with caveats. In the absence of confidential tax returns that would allow precise calculations, the authors used publicly available financial data. Businesses can change their behavior to minimize taxes. A one-year snapshot includes unusual situations that cause businesses to pay the minimum tax once, generating tax credits that can be used in future years.

Jeff Bezos owned nearly 13% of Amazon shares earlier this year, securities filings showed.


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Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

Under the new law, companies averaging more than $1 billion in publicly reported annual profits will calculate their tax twice: once under the regular system at a rate of 21% and again at a rate of 15% and different rules for deductions and credits. They pay whichever is higher.

The new system, known as book minimum tax, starts with income reported on the accounts, not traditional taxable income. Differences between the two — the treatment of stock-based compensation, for example — could cause a company to pay the new tax.

According to the UNC estimates, Berkshire Hathaway would have paid the most in 2021 at $8.3 billion — or about a quarter of the estimated total — followed by Amazon at $2.8 billion and Ford Motor co.

to 1.9 billion dollars.

Add the next three companies, and it reflects more than half of the $31.8 billion total: AT&T Inc.

to $1.5 billion, eBay Inc.

for 1.3 billion dollars, and Moderna Inc.

to 1.2 billion dollars.

Berkshire Hathaway did not comment. Amazon declined to comment on the figure, but said it is awaiting federal guidance. Amazon said its taxes reflect a combination of investment and compensation decisions and U.S. laws.

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An AT&T spokesman said the company does not expect the minimum tax to affect its 2023 tax bill. “Academics do not prepare our taxes; trained and tax experts do that work,” the spokesman said.

Moderna’s tax rate in 2021 — its first year with an operating profit — was shaped by the use of deductible net operating losses generated from research expenses, said Jamey Mock, the company’s chief financial officer. The company also paid much of its 2021 taxes during 2022. “We do not expect these unique circumstances to factor into our future tax considerations,” he said.

Melissa Miller, a Ford spokeswoman, said the company pays all the taxes it owes and pointed to tax credits in the law designed to speed the transition to electric vehicles.

Heather Jurek, eBay’s vice president of tax, said the study’s calculations and interpretations of the law are inaccurate when applied to the company. “UNC’s conclusions are driven by a significant disposition in 2021 that eBay is unlikely to replicate,” she said.

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Exelon corp.

is among the few companies that have disclosed what it expects to be the detailed effects of the tax. The utility services holding company said in an August securities filing that it expected to incur annual cash costs of about $200 million starting next year, down from an earlier estimate of $300 million.

Exelon said it continues to evaluate the tax provision, and it expects to benefit from legislative provisions that encourage investment in electric vehicles and modernization of electric grids.

Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy corp.

, told investors in August that the utility giant also expects to be hit, without disclosing numbers. A spokesman said the UNC estimate, $802 million based on 2021 revenue, is far too high. He said the company also expects to benefit from the legislation’s tax credits for renewable energy and nuclear power.

Linking taxes more closely to publicly reported profits is deliberate. It will become harder for companies to maximize profits to impress shareholders while steering taxable profits downwards to minimize payments to governments, tax advisers say.

Mr. Biden has said the new tax means the days of profitable businesses paying no taxes are over.

“There are companies that, for various reasons, will continue to be in a minimum tax position,” said April Little of accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP.

Some profitable businesses could still pay little or no federal income tax. Businesses can offset up to 75% of tax liability with credits – including renewable energy incentives that Congress just extended. The law contains special provisions in favor of companies with investments in wireless frequencies, defined benefit pensions and significant capital investments.

“We have the anti-loophole tax bill that is full of loopholes,” said Mr. Hopes.

Tax advisers say companies are trying to understand the law, pointing to uncertainties such as the treatment of foreign exchange losses and gains, capitalized depreciation allowances and rules around mergers and acquisitions.

Early next year, companies will begin providing earnings guidance, making estimated tax payments and reflecting the tax in quarterly earnings. They can also begin to develop mitigation strategies and look for flexibility in the accounting rules for when income and expenses are counted.

“What I see most people doing right now is worrying about: How is this going to work? How am I going to do this without going crazy?” said Diana Wollman, a partner at the law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP.

“They spend more time figuring out what they want to ask for in the rules in terms of either clarity or regulatory discretion than they do trying to figure out how they want to play it,” Ms. Wollmann.

Write to Richard Rubin at richard.rubin@wsj.com and Theo Francis at theo.francis@wsj.com

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