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Microsoft faces $28.9 billion IRS tax bill

Gonzalo Fuentes / reuters

In a significant development, Microsoft, the technology giant, finds itself entangled in a substantial tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to the IRS, Microsoft owes $28.9 billion in back taxes, exclusive of penalties and interest. This issue dates back to a series of Notices of Proposed Adjustment (NOPAs) issued by the IRS for the tax years 2004 to 2013. Microsoft has disclosed these developments in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This article delves into the details of this tax dispute, focusing on the practice of “transfer pricing,” the implications of back taxes, and Microsoft’s proposed actions in response to the IRS’s claims.

1. The Practice of Transfer Pricing

The crux of the IRS audit centers around the practice of “transfer pricing.” Transfer pricing is a legal practice employed by multinational corporations to allocate profits and expenses among different regions in which they operate. The practice seeks to reflect the global nature of a corporation’s business and its operations across various countries and jurisdictions.

1.1 Microsoft’s Utilization of Transfer Pricing

Microsoft, like many large multinational corporations, utilized transfer pricing to distribute profits and costs among its global subsidiaries. In this practice, Microsoft’s subsidiaries shared the costs associated with developing certain intellectual properties (IPs). This meant that these subsidiaries were also entitled to a portion of the profits generated by these IPs.

1.2 Critics and Concerns

Despite the legal nature of transfer pricing, critics of this practice argue that many corporations employ it to minimize their tax liabilities. Companies often utilize this approach to report lower profits in countries with high tax rates, which, in turn, reduces the taxes payable in those regions. Simultaneously, they allocate higher profits to countries with more favorable tax regimes, effectively minimizing their global tax obligations.

2. The IRS’s Audit and Findings

The IRS undertook an extensive audit spanning several years, specifically focusing on Microsoft’s tax practices related to the years 2004 to 2013. During this period, the IRS investigated how Microsoft distributed its profits among different countries and jurisdictions and the associated tax implications.

2.1 Notice of Proposed Adjustment (NOPA)

As a result of this audit, the IRS issued a series of Notices of Proposed Adjustment (NOPAs) to Microsoft. These notices indicate the IRS’s intention to adjust Microsoft’s tax liabilities for the mentioned tax years. The IRS’s NOPAs represent a significant step in the agency’s effort to address potential tax discrepancies.

2.2 Implications

The IRS’s audit and subsequent NOPAs have far-reaching implications for Microsoft. The IRS contends that Microsoft owes $28.9 billion in back taxes related to the years under investigation. This amount does not include any penalties or interest that may accrue due to the alleged tax shortfall. The IRS’s findings create a substantial financial obligation for Microsoft and necessitate a response from the tech giant.

3. Microsoft’s Response

Microsoft, as expected, has contested the IRS’s assessment of back taxes. The company argues that the issues raised by the IRS are specific to the tax years 2004 to 2013 and do not reflect its current corporate structure and tax practices. Microsoft emphasizes that it has since made changes to its operations and tax approach. It is important to note that the company asserts that newer tax laws and regulations could reduce the amount of back taxes owed as a result of this particular audit by as much as $10 billion.

3.1 Proposed Course of Action

In light of the IRS’s claims and findings, Microsoft has outlined its proposed course of action in its filing with the SEC. The company intends to dispute the IRS’s assessment to the best of its ability. Microsoft’s plan includes pursuing an appeal within the IRS, which, according to typical procedures, can take several years to complete. However, the company has also expressed its readiness to escalate the matter further if necessary. Microsoft is prepared to “contest any unresolved issues through the courts.”


Microsoft’s ongoing tax dispute with the IRS represents a substantial financial and legal challenge for the tech giant. The IRS’s claim of $28.9 billion in back taxes, arising from a decade-long audit focused on transfer pricing practices, has prompted a vigorous response from Microsoft. The company disputes the findings and underlines the fact that the issues pertain to specific tax years and have no relevance to its current corporate structure and practices. Microsoft’s proposed course of action includes pursuing an appeal within the IRS, which can be a protracted process, and further legal action if required.

The outcome of this dispute will not only impact Microsoft’s financial obligations but may also have broader implications for the taxation of multinational corporations and the interpretation of transfer pricing practices by tax authorities. Microsoft’s response to these allegations, combined with its assertion that newer tax laws could mitigate the back tax liability, underscores the complex and evolving landscape of corporate taxation.

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