A presentation was made on behalf of the BEPS Monitoring Group by Professor Kerrie Sadiq, to the first meeting of the Enlarged Framework of the OECD Committee on Fiscal Affairs, in Kyoto (Japan) on 29 June 2016. The outline of this presentation is here.
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. This discussion draft (DD) proposes that, in specific circumstances, the price of the asset transfer can be adjusted subsequently by tax authorities, taking into account the income actually generated. However, the DD specifies a number of conditions which must apply for this approach to be adopted.
Although desirable, in our view the proposals do not go far enough in two respects. First, the mechanism adopted should itself discourage transfers taking advantage of ex ante pricing, which is where most BEPS concerns and risk arise. Second, the DD must aim to reduce the endemic and serious problem of information asymmetry between a tax authority and a company. This is rooted in the requirement under the arm’s length principle to evaluate internal transfers within a firm, since the tax authority can never know a firm’s business better than the firm does.
Hence, we suggest instead a reversal of the burden of proof, with a presumption that any intra-firm transfer of HTVIs should be subject to pricing based on subsequent consideration of the actual income produced, unless the taxpayer can show that specified criteria were satisfied. We also propose two additional criteria for such a showing: proof that the transfer did not result in a significantly lower effective tax rate, and a ‘purpose test’ requiring satisfactory evidence of the legal and commercial reasons for the transfer. This reversal of the burden of proof will create a much stronger incentive for firms to cease tax-motivated transfers of intangibles. In addition, to provide more certainty, we suggest an APA-like ruling process.
This report consists of a draft revised chapter of the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines, with no indication of the changes made, or explanation of the reasons or intended effects, which makes the issues effectively inaccessible to all except the insider community of practitioners. This along with several other reports will result in extensive revisions and additions to the Guidelines, but it will be a piece-meal patch-up, incoherent and in some respects contradictory. The revised text could be adopted and have effect around the world, even in countries outside the OECD and G20, without the need for adoption by states. We therefore recommend that it should be regarded as only provisional, and a more fundamental reconsideration should be begun, in conjunction with the UN Tax Committee.
There can be good reasons for MNEs to share within the group the costs of activities which benefit various parts. However, such collaborative arrangements within MNEs are generally coordinated administratively, and are very different from contractual arrangements negotiated between genuinely independent enterprises each with its own separate business. Based on the mistaken starting point that CCAs between related parties should be treated as if they had been negotiated by independent ones, the proposals in this draft are contradictory and imprecise, difficult to administer, and in their present form would be ineffective in preventing MNEs from using CCAs for BEPS purposes. The suggestion that contributions should be priced according to the value of the benefits and not normally on their costs will again lead tax authorities into the quagmire of searching for non-existent comparables or estimating hypothetical values. On the other hand, it accepts that costs should usually be shared by applying an appropriate allocation key, and aims to prevent inappropriate outcomes by allowing subsequent adjustments to valuations and introducing the requirement that participants in a CCA must have the ‘capability and authority to control’ risks.
We support these proposals, as necessary measures to check CCAs from being used for profit-shifting, and indeed suggest that they should be strengthened. We nevertheless deplore the increased complexity which is needed to make the Guidelines effective, due to the adoption of a mistaken approach. In view of the many tax planning mechanisms available to MNEs for fragmenting activities and attributing functions to different entities, separating supposedly routine activities, such as contract manufacturing or distribution, from supposedly high-value functions such as design, financial services, or IP management, to allow MNEs also to plan allocation of joint costs without considering apportionment of profits is a continued encouragement to BEPS behaviour.
The BMG was represented by Veronica Grondona at the regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean on the BEPS process, organised by CIAT and the OECD, in Lima (Peru) on 28th February.
She made a presentation based on a paper in Spanish which was also circulated to meeting participants. It includes comments both on the BEPS process in general, and some more specific discussion of technical details, based on submissions made by the Group.
We have now published our submission in response to the consultation on BEPS Action Points 8, 9 & 10 Revisions to Chapter I of Transfer Pricing Guidelines (including Risk, Recharacterisation, and Special Measures)
We applaud this discussion draft (DD) as an attempt to reconsider the basic approach, which has too long dominated transfer pricing regulation, that taxation of a multinational corporate group must treat its various component parts as if they were independent entities and focus on the pricing of transactions between them. This independent entity assumption runs totally counter to the current reality existing within these centrally-managed groups, and produces a system which is terribly subjective, often very discretionary, and impossibly difficult to administer.
To examine the details of intra-firm transactions, this independent entity assumption requires tax administrations to use specialist staff, normally in short supply in developed countries and often non-existent in developing countries, with legal expertise in complex structures and transactions, economic analysis capabilities, and specific knowledge of the characteristics of each business sector.
Despite this willingness to reconsider the basic approach, the draft still clings to that mistaken independent entity assumption by continuing to require that inter-affiliate transactions should be the starting point. These transactions are then evaluated in terms of the functions performed, assets owned and risks assumed by the affiliated entities, and the draft attempts to analyse these three factors: Functions-Assets-Risks (F-A-R), especially Risks. The draft rightly recognizes that in an integrated multinational corporate group ‘the consequences of the allocation of assets, function, and risks to separate legal entities is overridden by control’. We cannot agree more with this, since the greater competitiveness and generally higher profits of a corporate group operating in an integrated way derives from the benefits of synergy, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is generally difficult or impossible to decide what proportion of the total profits to attribute to particular F-A-Rs within the various group members, especially when central control allows a multinational to transfer at its sole discretion intangible assets, functions, and risks amongst group members solely for purposes of tax minimisation.
Hence, we agree with the analyses in the draft, for example that concerning ‘moral hazard’, which suggests that a contract between associated enterprises in which one party contractually assumes a risk without the ability to manage the behaviour of the party creating its risk exposure is clearly a sham. Following the approach of the DD, this means that non-recognition or other adjustments must be made to appropriately interpret the actual transaction as accurately delineated. Our preferred approach, however, is to begin from the assumption that contracts between associated enterprises cannot be likened to market transactions between independent parties, for that very reason, so that the starting point should be an assumption that contracts between related entities should be disregarded.
Our preference, as we have urged in our separate comments on another report, is that the profit split method should be regularized and systematized, by clarifying the methodology for defining the aggregate tax base to be split, and specifying definite concrete and easily determinable objective allocation keys for all commonly used business models, also including the principles for choosing such keys for new business models as they appear in the future.
Part II proposes some ‘special measures’ which could be applied in defined ‘exceptional circumstances’, which in effect attempt to deal with some of the gaping wounds of the current transfer pricing system. We generally support these as at least an improvement on current formulations: particularly Option 1 (Hard to Value Intangibles); Option 2, first variant (Independent Investor); and Option 4 (Minimum Functional Entity). While we support Option 3 (Thick Capitalisation), in our view it must not form part of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines but belongs in the rules on Controlled Foreign Corporations, which are being separately considered. We detail strong reasons for this view.
We consider that there is merit in the concept of Option 5 (Ensuring appropriate taxation of excess returns), but as presently described it would be counter-productive and only continue to encourage BEPS behaviour, particularly if x% (the defined ‘low-tax rate’) is below the general corporate tax rate in the home country and is both the trigger for application of the CFC rule and the rate of tax to be applied under the CFC rule in the home country of the MNE. We propose that the trigger for applying this Option 5 should be an average effective rate of tax defined as a percentage that is very close to the general corporate tax rate in the home country. In particular, we recommend that it be no less than 95% of that home country rate.
Overall, these amendments to the Transfer Pricing Guidelines, although extensive, would for that very reason make them even more complex, subjective, and, for the most part, impossible for most countries’ tax authorities to administer. These and other drawbacks mean that the overriding need at the present juncture is for rules which are easily administered and that provide results for taxpayers and countries that all regard as fair. In the immediate term, we therefore strongly urge a clear shift towards a systematised and regularised application of the Profit Split method. A next step is a fundamental reappraisal of the Guidelines, and a complete rewriting especially of chapter 1. It should begin by a reversal of the independent entity assumption and an acceptance of the principle that each multinational corporate group must be considered according to the business reality that it operates as an integrated firm under central direction.
On 30 July 2013, the OECD invited comments from interested parties on the Revised Discussion Draft on Transfer Pricing Aspects of Intangibles. This is the response submitted by the BEPS Monitoring group: BMG Intangibles response