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Hidden in the footnotes of the financial report released last week by Netflix is an admission that the company reduced its taxes by $80 million in 2013 by deducting the “cost” of executive stock options. This means that as a result of this single tax break, the company didn’t pay a dime of federal or state income tax on its $159 million in US profits last year.
Last year CTJ reported that a dozen emerging tech firms, including Twitter, Facebook and Priceline, were poised to shelter as much as $11 billion in profits from tax using this arcane loophole. For some of these companies, the stock option tax break can singlehandedly wipe out all income tax liability, as it did for Facebook last year.
Stock options are rights to buy stock at a set price. Corporations sometimes compensate employees (particularly top executives) with these options. The employee can wait to exercise the option until the value of the stock has increased beyond that price, thus enjoying a substantial benefit. The problem is that poorly designed tax rules allow corporations to deduct the difference between the market value of the stock and the amount paid when the stock option is exercised. In practice, corporations are often able to deduct more for tax purposes for stock options than they report to shareholders as their cost.
The defenders of this tax break sometimes argue that when companies pay their employees, it shouldn’t matter whether the pay takes the form of salaries and wages or stock options. But this argument glosses over the fact that while paying salaries imposes a dollar-for-dollar cost on employers, issuing stock options simply does not. As we have argued elsewhere, a sensible analogy is airlines giving employees the opportunity to fly free on flights that aren’t full, which costs the airlines nothing. It would be ludicrous to argue that airlines should be able to deduct the retail value of these tickets.
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) has introduced legislation that would pare back (but not repeal entirely) the stock option tax break. Levin’s legislation (the Cut Unjustified Tax Loopholes Act) would address situations in which corporations take tax deductions for stock options that exceed the cost they report to their shareholders. It would also remove the loophole that exempts compensation paid in stock options from the existing rule capping companies’ deductions for compensation at $1 million per executive.
Allowing high-profile tech companies to zero out their taxes using phantom costs erodes the public’s faith in the tax system; any meaningful attempt to reform our corporate tax should remedy this situation.