Comments on Draft Additional Guidance on Attribution of Profits to a Permanent Establishment

14 September 2017

The BMG has made a submission on Attribution of Profits to a Permanent Establishment in response to the OECD Discussion Draft.

Summary

A major motivator in initiating the entire BEPS project was to end BEPS motivated planning by centrally managed groups. Such planning often attributes sales to zero or low-taxed entities and separates sales through fragmentation from related core functions such as marketing, order fulfilment, and customer support performed by other group entities. Under Action 7 of the BEPS project some modest changes were agreed, so that in defined circumstances a non-resident entity could now be found to have a taxable presence (permanent establishment – PE) in a country in which it makes sales. The current proposals aim to clarify how profits should be attributed to such a PE.

We agree that attribution of profits depends on an analysis of the functions performed by the PE, but in our view this must not be done in isolation. A holistic approach should be adopted, which considers all the activities carried out in the country by the relevant entities in conjunction. Where a multinational chooses to carry out itself activities such as marketing, sales, order fulfilment, and customer support, it does so in order to take advantage of the synergies so created, thereby giving the customer a seamless experience and itself (i.e., the group) a significant market advantage. Hence, it is the cumulative importance of all group activities that should be considered when evaluating the value which is created in the country.

Due to this cumulative importance, our view is still that article 7 should be applied prior to article 9, since this would result in both better focus by taxpayers and tax authorities, and a practical reduction in the resources needed by both tax authorities and taxpayers for compliance.

A holistic approach will also lead in some circumstances to a different transfer pricing method being the most appropriate method. In particular, where such related functions are performed by highly integrated associated entities and are viewed holistically, the profit-split method is likely to prove more appropriate than one-sided methods.

A holistic approach is also important since the DD is meant to apply to all versions of article 7 of the model convention, and whether or not a state has accepted the changes adopted by a majority of OECD states in 2010, described as the authorized OECD approach (AOA). While the AOA has some merits, it has been used to further exacerbate a fragmented approach to the attribution of profits, which (along with the independent entity principle in general) has been a principal enabler of BEPS. Adoption of the holistic approach which we suggest could, we believe, allow some of those helpful features of the AOA to be retained, while ensuring that BEPS structures are not allowed to continue due to a narrow interpretation applying the independent entity principle to an entity which is not even legally separate.

Our Specific Comments section includes a number of concrete suggestions to make the DD more internally consistent and effective in its application.

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Comments on the Draft Revised Guidance on Profit Splits

14 September 2017

The BMG has made a submission on the Draft Revised Guidance on Profit Splits.

This discussion draft (DD) offers a rewrite of Section C in Part III of Chapter II of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines. Such a rewrite is overdue, as there has not been a comprehensive re-examination of the profit-split method (PSM) since it was included in the Guidelines in 1995.

This DD is written in a much clearer way than the existing section and we welcome the effort that has been made. However, we regret that the opportunity has not been taken to develop and extend the PSM to make it easier to use. In our view this would be the most effective way forward to achieving the central mandate of the BEPS project, to ensure that multinationals are taxed ‘where economic activities occur and value is created’.

In these comments we provide a specific approach that would allow easy use for tax authorities and taxpayers alike. The principal reason for this is that solely objective factors (e.g. personnel, assets, etc.) are used to apportion profits. This approach would ignore internal group-controlled and tax-motivated arrangements such as intercompany contractual terms. It would also dispense with the need for subjective value judgments, greatly reducing the potential for conflict and uncertainty.

Presentation to the Inclusive Framework on BEPS

The BMG participated in the plenary meeting of the Inclusive Framework on BEPS, held in The Netherlands on Thursday 22 June.

Francis Weyzig representing the Group made a presentation, based on a short document, circulated in advance to participants in both English and French.

 

Hard-to-Value Intangibles

The BMG has submitted comments on a further discussion draft from the OECD relating to transfer pricing of hard-to-value intangibles.

The transfer of intangible property rights to related entities is one of the main techniques used by multinational enterprises (MNEs) to avoid taxes through base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). Such assets are especially hard to value if they are transferred at an early stage, since their income-generating potential will be speculative, although best known to the firm itself. The three examples in the discussion draft all involve a transfer of such rights that have been only partially developed. Specifically, the examples involve a patented pharmaceutical compound that is partially through its clinical trials.

Although the draft still claims to apply the fiction of the arm’s length principle, it allows for transfer pricing adjustments based on actual outcomes, due to “information asymmetry” and its negative effects. Our comments support this approach, and propose some specific ways to strengthen it further.

The European Commission’s Proposals for a Common and Consolidated Corporate Tax Base

The BMG has now published its comments on the CCCTB  – the European Commission’s proposals for Common Corporate Tax Base, and for a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base.

The CCCTB adopts a sound approach to taxation of multinationals (MNEs), by treating them in accordance with their business reality as unitary firms. It aims to identify the tax base of the whole corporate group, disregarding internal transactions between the affiliates, and to apportion the taxable profit according to factors reflecting the firm’s real activity (sales, assets, employees) in each country. In our view, this is the most effective way to end both competition between states to offer tax incentives, and tax avoidance by MNEs shifting income between affiliates to minimise tax.

In our view, however, the aim should be to create a level playing field in relation to tax on corporate profits not only within the EU but worldwide. Unless this is done, EU member states will continue to compete with each other to offer tax preferences to MNEs from outside the EU. They will also continue to be vulnerable to tax competition from jurisdictions not covered by the CCCTB (including the UK, after Brexit). The CCCTB can and should be recast so that it attributes to the EU as a whole a portion of the worldwide profits of MNEs reflecting their actual activities within the EU, as well as allocating that profit among EU states, using the same criteria.

We also propose a ‘compensation mechanism’, in case another country (e.g. the US) adopts the alternative which has been proposed for a destination-based cash-flow tax with a ‘border adjustment’.

We also warn against the 2-stage approach proposed by the Commission, and criticise the proposed ‘super-deduction’ for R&D expenditures, and the so-called Allowance for Growth and Investment. As some business groups have also argued, it is better to define the tax base broadly, allowing scope for cuts in the rate (which are already taking place), than to build in selective and distorting special allowances.

16 May 2017

The Multilateral Convention on BEPS

The BMG has now published its Explanation and Analysis of MC-BEPS to implement the tax treaty related provisions of the BEPS project. (A slightly revised version was substituted on 24 April 2017, to add a couple of sentences at the bottom of p.8 explaining the procedure for entry into effect under article 35.7).

Summary

This multilateral convention aims to implement the tax treaty related changes recommended by the G20/OECD project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), by modifying existing tax treaties as rapidly as possible. It is open for all countries to join, even if they are not otherwise participants in the BEPS project. It is formulated so that it can apply to all tax treaties, whether based on the OECD or the UN model, or indeed another.

It is understandable that some countries may feel resistance to accepting provisions which they had little or no involvement in formulating. We also have been critical of the BEPS project outcomes, which fell short of providing a comprehensive and cohesive approach to reform of international tax rules. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the provisions in this convention in relation to existing tax treaty provisions. This report aims to provide an explanation and analysis of the convention, including most importantly also our recommendations for individual country implementation of the convention. We hope this will help to inform those in government as well as the wider public about its effects.

Overall, we consider that most of the provisions would be improvements on existing tax treaty rules. Tax treaties generally restrict rights to tax income at source, in favour of the residence countries of taxpayers. By restricting abusive techniques which erode the tax base, these provisions help to restore some source country taxation powers. The provisions against tax treaty abuse, including treaty shopping, will also strengthen the general powers of tax authorities to control tax avoidance.

Although we endorse some of the improvements to the mutual agreement procedures for amicable resolution between tax authorities of conflicts over interpretation of legal provisions and factual situations, we do not support those which entail a shift towards legalized dispute resolution, especially arbitration. International tax rules, especially on allocation of MNE profits, are subjective and discretionary, so it is inappropriate for states to assume a binding obligation to accept the decisions of arbitrators. Public opinion will not accept the legitimacy of decisions involving substantial government revenue being taken in complete secrecy by a small community of specialists likely to remain dominated by corporate tax advisers and officials mostly from rich countries.

UK Implementation of the Multilateral Convention on BEPS

The BMG made a submission to the UK government  in February 2017 on the UK’s implementation of the Multilateral Convention to Implement the Treaty-Related Provisions of the BEPS project.

Summary

This multilateral instrument (MLI) aims to enable rapid implementation of the tax-treaty related proposals resulting from the G20/OECD project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), by amending the bilateral tax treaties of participating jurisdictions. Although we have advocated a more coherent and comprehensive approach to the problem, we support the overarching aim of the provisions in the MLI to reduce the exploitation of gaps and mismatches in tax rules to artificially shift profits to low or no-tax locations where there is little or no economic activity, resulting in little or no overall corporate taxation being paid. The MLI provides the easiest method of ensuring that this occurs quickly and coherently. If countries cherry-pick among the provisions of the MLI, its effectiveness would be greatly reduced, and instead of moving towards a simpler and more uniform structure of anti-abuse provisions in tax treaties, the MLI would add a new layer of complexity and potential confusion.

We would expect the UK, having been in the forefront in initiating the BEPS project and having played a major part in formulation of the proposals, to be in the lead in implementation of the outcomes. We are therefore surprised and concerned that it is proposed that the UK should adopt a selective approach to implementation. The intention apparently is to rely on general anti-abuse principles and unilateral measures, notably the Diverted Profits Tax, instead of implementing the more targeted provisions which have been agreed in the BEPS project and incorporated in the MLI.

We are especially concerned at the proposal not to adopt the provisions aiming at abuse of the taxable presence criteria provided by the permanent establishment (PE) concept. This seems based on a policy to reject attributing significant taxable profits if a MNE has an entity within the jurisdiction significantly involved in sales, even when it also has other affiliates engaged in related activities which constitute complementary functions that are part of a cohesive business operation. The approach proposed by Treasury and HMRC seems out of line with public opinion on how tax should be aligned with real economic activity, as expressed quite forcefully in several reports of the Public Accounts Committee. Treasury and HMRC policy seems to be that this should be dealt with by the diverted profits tax, which is both a unilateral and a blunt weapon. The UK rejection of the changes to the PE definition would deny them to its treaty partners, apparently aiming to offer an attractive country of residence for MNEs to carry on business outside the UK, by minimising taxation of their foreign income. However, other countries might also seek to defend their tax base with their own unilateral measures. Hence, the UK would effectively be engaging in tax competition, a beggar-thy-neighbour approach, which runs counter to the aims of the BEPS project and, we believe, to the long-term interests of the UK.

Such a partial adoption of MLI provisions, and reliance on unilateral measures and broad anti-abuse principles, would inevitably generate a higher number of conflicts. Indeed, this seems to be anticipated, by the inclusion in the MLI of a special chapter providing for mandatory binding arbitration. In our view this is putting the cart before the horse. Priority should be given to preventing disputes, by agreeing clear rules for allocation of profit which are easy to administer. We oppose the proposal that the UK should adopt mandatory binding arbitration, since this involves giving up UK sovereignty, which should be unacceptable in the key area of direct taxation.

For these reasons we have major concerns about the approach towards the MLI outlined so far by the UK Treasury and HMRC, which we explain further below, and hope that it can be reconsidered.