Introduction

Transfer pricing refers  to the prices charged for commercial transactions between various parts of the same corporate group, in particular prices set for goods sold or services provided by one subsidiary of a corporate group to another subsidiary of that same group. The prices set for those transactions and the resulting amounts calculated on the basis of those prices contribute to increase the profits of one subsidiary and decrease the profits of the other subsidiary for tax purposes, and therefore contribute to determine the taxable basis of both entities. Transfer pricing thus also concerns profit allocation between different parts of the same corporate group.

Allocation of profits 

Multinational corporations pay taxes in jurisdictions which have different tax rates. The after tax profit recorded at the corporate group level is the sum of the after-tax profits in each county in which it is subject to taxation. Therefore, rather than maximise the profit declared in each country, multinational corporations have a financial incentive when allocating profit to the different companies of the corporate group to allocate as much profit as possible to low tax jurisdictions and as little profit as possible to high tax jurisdictions. This could, for example, be achieved by exaggerating the price of goods sold by a subsidiary established in a low tax jurisdiction to a subsidiary established in a high tax jurisdiction. In this manner, the higher taxed subsidiary would declare higher costs and therefore lower profits when compared to market conditions. This excess profit would be recorded in the lower tax jurisdiction and taxed at a lower rate than if the transaction had been priced at market conditions.

Those transfer prices might therefore not be reliable for tax purposes and should not determine the taxable base for the corporate tax. If the (manipulated) price of the transaction between companies of the same corporate group were taken into account for the assessment of the taxable profits in each jurisdiction, it would entail an advantage for the firms which can artificially allocate profits between associate companies in different jurisdictions compared with other undertakings. So as to avoid this type of advantage, it is necessary to ensure that taxable income is determined in line with the taxable income a private operator would declare in a similar situation.

Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention

The internationally agreed standard for setting such commercial conditions between companies of the same corporate group or a branch thereof and its mother company and thereby for the allocation of profit is the “arm’s length principle” as set in Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention, according to which commercial and financial relations between associated enterprises should not differ from relations which would be made between independent companies. More precisely, using alternative methods for determining taxable income to prevent certain undertakings from hiding undue advantages or donations with the sole purpose of avoiding taxation must normally be to achieve taxation comparable to that which could have been arrived at between independent operators on the basis of the traditional method, whereby the taxable profit is calculated on the basis of the difference between the enterprise’s income and charges.

OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines

The OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines (hereinafter the “OECD Guidelines”) provides five such methods to approximate an arm’s length pricing of transactions and profit allocation between companies of the same corporate group: (i) the comparable uncontrolled price method (hereinafter “CUP”); (ii) the cost plus method; (iii) the resale minus method; (iv) the transactional net margin method (hereinafter “TNMM”) and (v) the transactional profit split method. The OECD Guidelines draw a distinction between traditional transaction methods (the first three methods) and transactional profit methods (the last two methods). Multinational corporations retain the freedom to apply methods not described in those guidelines to establish transfer prices provided those prices satisfy the arm’s length principle.

Traditional Transaction Methods

Traditional transaction methods are regarded as the most direct means of establishing whether conditions in the commercial and financial relations between associated enterprises are at arm’s length (OECD Guidelines, paragraph 2.3).

All three traditional transaction methods approximate an arm’s length pricing of a specific intra- group transaction, such as the price of a certain good sold or service provided to a related company. In particular, the CUP method consists in observing a comparable transaction between two independent companies and applying the same price for a comparable transaction between group companies. The cost plus method consist in approximating the income from goods sold or services provided to a group company. The resale minus method consists in approximating the costs of goods acquired from or services provided by a group company. Other elements which enter into the profit calculation (such as personal costs or interest expenses) are calculated based on the price effectively paid to an independent company or are approximated using one of the three direct methods.

Transactional Profit Methods

The transactional profit methods, by contrast, do not approximate the arm’s length price of a specific transaction, but are based on comparisons of net profit indicators (such as profit margins, return on assets, operating income to sales, and possibly other measures of net profit) between independent and associated companies as a means to estimate the profits that one or each of the associated companies could have earned had they dealt solely with independent companies, and therefore the payment those companies would have demanded at arm’s length to compensate them for using their resources in the intra-group transaction. For this purpose, the TNMM relies on a net profit indicator which refers, in principle, to the ratio of profit weighted to an item of the profit and loss account or of the balance sheet, such as turnover, costs or equity. To this selected item, a margin is applied which is considered “arm’s length” to approximate the amount of taxable profit. When the TNMM is used in combination with a net profit indicator based on costs, it is sometimes referred to as “cost plus” in exchanges between the taxpayer and the tax administration, but this should not be confused with the “cost plus method” described in the OECD Guidelines as described in the previous recital.

Comparables

The application of the arm’s length principle is generally based on a comparison of the conditions in an intra-group transaction with the conditions in transactions between independent companies. For such comparisons to be useful, the economically relevant characteristics of the situations being compared must be sufficiently comparable. To be comparable means that none of the differences (if any) between the situations being compared could materially affect the condition being examined in the methodology (e.g. price or margin), or that reasonably accurate adjustments can be made to eliminate the effect of any such differences. To establish the degree of actual comparability and then to make appropriate adjustments to establish arm’s length conditions (or a range thereof), it is necessary to compare attributes of the transactions or companies that would affect conditions in arm’s length transactions. The OECD Guidelines list as attributes or “comparability factors” that may be important when determining comparability: the characteristics of the property or services transferred; the functions performed by the parties, taking into account assets used and risks assumed (functional analysis); the contractual terms; the economic circumstances of the parties; and the business strategies pursued by the parties.

Application to Permanent Establishments 

The arm’s length principle applies not only to transactions between separate companies within a group but also to “transactions” between a company and its permanent establishments, for example a branch. In fact, transfer pricing can also take place within one company if the company operates a branch or permanent establishment in a separate jurisdiction. In that case, the arm’s length principle is applicable by analogy, as confirmed in the 2010 report on the attribution of profits to permanent establishments of the OECD.