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(See CTJ director’s full explanation of Facebook’s use of the stock option deduction here.)

Facebook, Inc.’s upcoming initial public stock offering (IPO) paperwork reveals that it plans to wipe out all of the company’s federal and state income tax obligations for 2012 and actually generate a half billion dollar tax refund. As part of the plan, Facebook co-founder and controlling stockholder, Mark Zuckerberg can expect a $2.8 billion after tax cash windfall.

According to Facebook’s SEC filing, the company has issued stock options to favored employees, including Zuckerberg, that will allow them to purchase 187 million Facebook shares for little or nothing in 2012. Options for 120 million shares (worth $4.8 billion) are owned by Zuckerberg. The company indicates that it expects all of the 187 million in stock options to be exercised in 2012.

The tax law says that if a corporation issues options for employees to buy the company’s stock in the future for its price when the option issued, then if the stock has gone up in value when employees exercise the options, the company gets to deduct the difference between what the employee bought it for and its market price.

When, as Facebook expects, the 187 million stock options are cashed in this year, Facebook will get $7.5 billion in tax deductions (which will reduce the company’s federal and state taxes by $3 billion). According to Facebook, these tax deductions should exceed the company’s U.S. taxable 2012 income and result in a net operating loss (NOL) that can then be carried back to the preceding two years to offset its past taxes, resulting in a refund of up to $500 million.

Senator Carl Levin, who has proposed to limit the stock option loophole, told the New York Times, “Facebook may not pay any corporate income taxes on its profits for a generation. When profitable corporations can use the stock option tax deduction to pay zero corporate income taxes for years on end, average taxpayers are forced to pick up the tax burden. It isn’t right, and we can’t afford it.”

To be sure, Zuckerberg will have to pay federal and state income taxes (at ordinary tax rates) when he exercises his $4.8 billion worth of stock options in 2012. That’s only fair, since that $4.8 billion obviously represents income to him. But even after paying taxes, he’ll still end up with $2.8 billion.

The problem isn’t Zuckerberg’s personal taxes but Facebook’s. Why should companies get a tax deduction for something that cost them nothing?  If an airline allows its workers to fly free or at a discounted price on flights that aren’t full (for vacations, etc.) airlines don’t get a tax deduction (beyond actual cost) for that, even though the workers get taxed on the benefit, because it costs the airline nothing.

In the case of stock options, there is also a zero cost to the employer. So it’s more reasonable to conclude that while employees should be taxed on stock option benefits (“all income from whatever source derived” as the tax code states), employers should only be able to deduct their cost of providing those benefits, which, in the case of Facebook and Zuckerberg, is zero.

The bottom line is that there’s something obviously wrong with a tax loophole that lets highly profitable companies like Facebook make more money after tax than before tax. What’s about to happen at Facebook is a perfect illustration of why non-cash “expenses” for stock options should not be tax deductible.

See page 12 of our Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers report for more about the 185 other companies we found exploiting the stock option loophole.

Photo of Facebook Logo via Dull Hunk and photo Mark Zuckerberg via KK+ Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0