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Amazon criticized over low German tax bill

A worker packs boxes at Amazon's logistics centre in Graben near Augsburg December 17, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Dalder
A worker packs boxes at Amazon's logistics centre in Graben near Augsburg December 17, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

By Tom Bergin

LONDON (Reuters) - Amazon.com Inc's main German unit paid income tax of just 3 million euros in 2012 after the group channeled sales to German clients of $8.7 billion via Luxembourg units, prompting one lawmaker to call for an investigation of the company.

Accounts for Amazon.de GmbH filed with Germany's companies register show that the company reported profit of just 10 million euros for 2012, which was taxed at the headline German rate of 30 percent.

Germany is Amazon's largest non-U.S. market and represents a third of its overseas sales, but the vast bulk of that German cash ends up ultimately in Luxembourg-registered Amazon Europe Holding Technologies, which reported profits of 118 million euros but, as a tax-exempt partnership, paid no income tax.

Amazon declined requests to comment but has previously said it follows the tax rules in all the countries where it operates.

All companies seek to reduce their tax bills and have a duty to steward their assets effectively, tax lawyers say.

"Managers have a fiduciary duty to get the best return for their shareholders, and tax is a part of that," said Laurence Field, tax partner at Crowe Clark Whitehill LLP.

Even so, the lengths to which some go to avoid tax has put the issue at the top of the political agenda in the past year.

Citizens bearing the brunt of the financial crisis through high unemployment, falling real wages and government spending cuts have been angered at revelations that some companies have created elaborate networks of subsidiaries whose chief purpose is to siphon profits out of countries where their economic activity occurs and into tax havens where they have little or no physical presence.

At a meeting of the G20 group of leading economies in November last year German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble teamed up with his British counterpart, George Osborne, to push for changes in international rules that allow companies to shift profits.

Amazon is not alone in facing criticism for its tax arrangements. Others including web search leader Google and iPhone maker Apple have come under fire for similar methods to move profits to jurisdictions where they will pay less tax. Both say they follow tax rules wherever they operate.

Sven Giegold, member of the European Parliament with Germany's Green Party, said the low profits declared and taxes paid by Amazon in Germany showed the need for a tougher approach on the part of the German authorities.

"I am outraged," he said. "We have to use much stronger means to ensure the profit cannot be moved out of the country," he added.

Giegold said he planned to write to Schaeuble to ask him to investigate the matter to see if any rules had been broken.

"It's not enough to make a speech at the G20 and then be inactive on extreme cases (of avoidance)," he said.

Amazon minimizes its tax bills across Europe by having customers transact with a Luxembourg company Amazon EU SARL when they click the purchase button on European websites.

French, German and other European units are designated as providers of non-business-critical services to Amazon EU SARL.

This means that Amazon.de GmbH does not receive revenue from sales to users of the Amazon.de website but instead receives enough money from Amazon EU SARL to cover its costs and generate a small profit.

Amazon says it operates a single European business with all strategic functions conducted from its Luxembourg headquarters. This employs around 300 people, while the units in its main European markets employ tens of thousands.

A Reuters examination of job advertisements and employee profiles on website LinkedIn earlier this year showed staff in the UK, German and French units managed all aspects of the supply chain from identifying new products to sell, negotiating with suppliers, deciding pricing policies and website design.

While Amazon EU SARL receives all the cash from European sales - 12 billion euros in 2012 - it made a profit of under 30 million and paid tax of just 8 million euros.

This is because it pays large sums to its parent, Amazon Europe Holding Technologies, to use Amazon group technology, company filings and evidence presented in the U.S. tax court shows.

The difference between what Amazon Europe Holding Technologies charges for these rights and the amount it pays to the U.S. affiliates that develop the technology is significant and has allowed the tax-exempt partnership to build up a cash pile of $2 billion over the past decade.

Amazon has also been criticized in other countries for its low tax bills.

(Reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Will Waterman)

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