Amazon founder Jeff Bezos

An analysis of Jeff Bezos’ personal tax situation suggests his purchase of the failing Washington Post Company may not be as gluttonous as many have claimed.

In an open letter to Post staff, Bezos, the 49-year-old multi-billionaire and chief executive of Amazon.com Inc, said: “I won’t be leading the Washington Post day-to-day.”

That statement comes with a hefty tax consequence, making reporters even more perplexed as to what exactly motivated the 19th richest person in the world to pickup a an old, downward-sliding paper company.

One theory – that Bezos bought the Post for personal tax benefit – is complicated by his decision to stay in Seattle and maintain his focus on running the world’s largest online retailer.

Tax law mandates that in order for individuals to claim business tax breaks they must play an active role in the business.  Otherwise, investors in businesses in which they play no role in would be able to offset losses against their taxable income.

For the first half of this year, the Post reported operating losses of nearly $50 million.  Any business owner can deduct operating losses to lower their overall tax liability.

See our post: FYI: The Classifications of Income

But in order for Bezos to realize the business tax benefits, IRS rules require he spend at least 500 hours per year actively managing the Post.  That’s roughly 10 hours/week, 2 hours/day, or one day/week.  No matter which way you slice it, it won’t be easy for Bezos to continue his full-time job as Chairman and CEO of a company worth over $100 billion while still maintaining enough active participation in the Post to help lower his tax liability.

As reported by Reuters, “the law is murky in defining what qualifies as business activity for tax breaks, and subject to interpretation, but it generally includes making decisions and telling people what to do.”

Some media outlets are reporting that Bezos may have to reconsider his hands-off approach in light of these rules; but it’s unlikely that the entrepreneur that upended the world of book sales and internet purchasing was not already aware of this tax implication.

So, if Bezos stays true to his word and keeps a hands-off approach with the Post, it may just be that, as others have suggested, this purchase was more of an altruistic pursuit to keep journalism alive coupled with a personal challenge to re-invent the industry later.

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