The role of multinational enterprises (MNEs) in world trade has continued to increase dramatically since the adoption of these Guidelines in 1995. This in part reflects the increased pace of integration of national economies and technological progress, particularly in the area of communications. The growth of MNEs presents increasingly complex taxation issues for both tax administrations and the MNEs themselves since separate country rules for the taxation of MNEs cannot be viewed in isolation but must be addressed in a broad international context.
These issues arise primarily from the practical difficulty, for both MNEs and tax administrations, of determining the income and expenses of a company or a permanent establishment that is part of an MNE group that should be taken into account within a jurisdiction, particularly where the MNE group’s operations are highly integrated.
In the case of MNEs, the need to comply with laws and administrative requirements that may differ from country to country creates additional problems. The differing requirements may lead to a greater burden on an MNE, and result in higher costs of compliance, than for a similar enterprise operating solely within a single tax jurisdiction.
In the case of tax administrations, specific problems arise at both policy and practical levels. At the policy level, countries need to reconcile their legitimate right to tax the profits of a taxpayer based upon income and expenses that can reasonably be considered to arise within their territory with the need to avoid the taxation of the same item of income by more than one tax jurisdiction. Such double or multiple taxation can create an impediment to cross-border transactions in goods and services and the movement of capital. At a practical level, a country’s determination of such income and expense allocation may be impeded by difficulties in obtaining pertinent data located outside its own jurisdiction.
At a primary level, the taxing rights that each country asserts depend on whether the country uses a system of taxation that is residence-based, source-based, or both. In a residence-based tax system, a country will include in its tax base all or part of the income, including income from sources outside that country, of any person (including juridical persons such as corporations) who is considered resident in that jurisdiction. In a source-based tax system, a country will include in its tax base income arising within its tax jurisdiction, irrespective of the residence of the taxpayer. As applied to MNEs, these two bases, often used in conjunction, generally treat each enterprise within the MNE group as a separate entity. OECD member countries have chosen this separate entity approach as the most reasonable means for achieving equitable results and minimising the risk of unrelieved double taxation. Thus, each individual group member is subject to tax on the income arising to it (on a residence or source basis).
In order to apply the separate entity approach to intra-group transactions, individual group members must be taxed on the basis that they act at arm’s length in their transactions with each other. However, the relationship among members of an MNE group may permit the group members to establish special conditions in their intra-group relations that differ from those that would have been established had the group members been acting as independent enterprises operating in open markets. To ensure the correct application of the separate entity approach, OECD member countries have adopted the arm’s length principle, under which the effect of special conditions on the levels of profits should be eliminated.
These international taxation principles have been chosen by OECD member countries as serving the dual objectives of securing the appropriate tax base in each jurisdiction and avoiding double taxation, thereby minimising conflict between tax administrations and promoting international trade and investment. In a global economy, coordination among countries is better placed to achieve these goals than tax competition. The OECD, with its mission to contribute to the expansion of world trade on a multilateral, non-discriminatory basis and to achieve the highest sustainable economic growth in member countries, has continuously worked to build a consensus on international taxation principles, thereby avoiding unilateral responses to multilateral problems.
The foregoing principles concerning the taxation of MNEs are incorporated in the OECD Model Tax Convention on Income and on Capital (OECD Model Tax Convention), which forms the basis of the extensive network of bilateral income tax treaties between OECD member countries and between OECD member and non-member countries. These principles also are incorporated in the Model United Nations Double Taxation Convention between Developed and Developing Nations.
The main mechanisms for resolving issues that arise in the application of international tax principles to MNEs are contained in these bilateral treaties. The Articles that chiefly affect the taxation of MNEs are: Article 4, which defines residence; Articles 5 and 7, which determine the taxation of permanent establishments; Article 9, which relates to the taxation of the profits of associated enterprises and applies the arm’s length principle; Articles 10, 11, and 12, which determine the taxation of dividends, interest, and royalties, respectively; and Articles 24, 25, and 26, which contain special provisions relating to non-discrimination, the resolution of disputes, and exchange of information.
The Committee on Fiscal Affairs, which is the main tax policy body of the OECD, has issued a number of reports relating to the application of these Articles to MNEs and to others. The Committee has encouraged the acceptance of common interpretations of these Articles, thereby reducing the risk of inappropriate taxation and providing satisfactory means of resolving problems arising from the interaction of the laws and practices of different countries.
In applying the foregoing principles to the taxation of MNEs, one of the most difficult issues that has arisen is the establishment for tax purposes of appropriate transfer prices. Transfer prices are the prices at which an enterprise transfers physical goods and intangible property or provides services to associated enterprises. For purposes of these Guidelines, an “associated enterprise” is an enterprise that satisfies the conditions set forth in Article 9, sub-paragraphs 1a) and 1b) of the OECD Model Tax Convention. Under these conditions, two enterprises are associated if one of the enterprises participates directly or indirectly in the management, control, or capital of the other or if “the same persons participate directly or indirectly in the management, control, or capital” of both enterprises (i.e. if both enterprises are under common control). The issues discussed in these Guidelines also arise in the treatment of permanent establishments as discussed in the Report on the Attribution of Profits to Permanent Establishments that was adopted by the OECD Council in July 2010, which supersedes the OECD Report Model Tax Convention: Attribution of Income to Permanent Establishments (1994). Some relevant discussion may also be found in the OECD Report International Tax Avoidance and Evasion (1987).
Transfer prices are significant for both taxpayers and tax administrations because they determine in large part the income and expenses, and therefore taxable profits, of associated enterprises in different tax jurisdictions. Transfer pricing issues originally arose in transactions between associated enterprises operating within the same tax jurisdiction. The domestic issues are not considered in these Guidelines, which focus on the international aspects of transfer pricing. These international aspects are more difficult to deal with because they involve more than one tax jurisdiction and therefore any adjustment to the transfer price in one jurisdiction implies that a corresponding change in another jurisdiction is appropriate. However, if the other jurisdiction does not agree to make a corresponding adjustment the MNE group will be taxed twice on this part of its profits. In order to minimise the risk of such double taxation, an international consensus is required on how to establish for tax purposes transfer prices on cross-border transactions.
These Guidelines are intended to be a revision and compilation of previous reports by the OECD Committee on Fiscal Affairs addressing transfer pricing and other related tax issues with respect to multinational enterprises. The principal report is Transfer Pricing and Multinational Enterprises (1979) (the “1979 Report”) which was repealed by the OECD Council in 1995. Other reports address transfer pricing issues in the context of specific topics. These reports are Transfer Pricing and Multinational Enterprises — Three Taxation Issues (1984) (the “1984 Report”), and Thin Capitalisation (the “1987 Report”). A list of amendments made to these Guidelines is included in the Foreword.
These Guidelines also draw upon the discussion undertaken by the OECD on the proposed transfer pricing regulations in the United States [see the OECD Report Tax Aspects of Transfer Pricing within Multinational Enterprises: The United States Proposed Regulations (1993). However, the context in which that Report was written was very different from that in which these Guidelines have been undertaken, its scope was far more limited, and it specifically addressed the United States proposed regulations.
OECD member countries continue to endorse the arm’s length principle as embodied in the OECD Model Tax Convention (and in the bilateral conventions that legally bind treaty partners in this respect) and in the 1979 Report. These Guidelines focus on the application of the arm’s length principle to evaluate the transfer pricing of associated enterprises. The Guidelines are intended to help tax administrations (of both OECD member countries and non-member countries) and MNEs by indicating ways to find mutually satisfactory solutions to transfer pricing cases, thereby minimising conflict among tax administrations and between tax administrations and MNEs and avoiding costly litigation. The Guidelines analyse the methods for evaluating whether the conditions of commercial and financial relations within an MNE satisfy the arm’s length principle and discuss the practical application of those methods. They also include a discussion of global formulary apportionment.
OECD member countries are encouraged to follow these Guidelines in their domestic transfer pricing practices, and taxpayers are encouraged to follow these Guidelines in evaluating for tax purposes whether their transfer pricing complies with the arm’s length principle. Tax administrations are encouraged to take into account the taxpayer’s commercial judgement about the application of the arm’s length principle in their examination practices and to undertake their analyses of transfer pricing from that perspective.
These Guidelines are also intended primarily to govern the resolution of transfer pricing cases in mutual agreement proceedings between OECD member countries and, where appropriate, arbitration proceedings. They further provide guidance when a corresponding adjustment request has been made. The Commentary on paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention makes clear that the State from which a corresponding adjustment is requested should comply with the request only if that State “considers that the figure of adjusted profits correctly reflects what the profits would have been if the transactions had been at arm’s length”. This means that in competent authority proceedings the State that has proposed the primary adjustment bears the burden of demonstrating to the other State that the adjustment “is justified both in principle and as regards the amount.” Both competent authorities are expected to take a cooperative approach in resolving mutual agreement cases.
In seeking to achieve the balance between the interests of taxpayers and tax administrators in a way that is fair to all parties, it is necessary to consider all aspects of the system that are relevant in a transfer pricing case. One such aspect is the allocation of the burden of proof. In most jurisdictions, the tax administration bears the burden of proof, which may require the tax administration to make a prima facie showing that the taxpayer’s pricing is inconsistent with the arm’s length principle. It should be noted, however, that even in such a case a tax administration might still reasonably oblige the taxpayer to produce its records to enable the tax administration to undertake its examination of the controlled transactions. In other jurisdictions the taxpayer may bear the burden of proof in some respects. Some OECD member countries are of the view that Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention establishes burden of proof rules in transfer pricing cases which override any contrary domestic provisions. Other countries, however, consider that Article 9 does not establish burden of proof rules (cf. paragraph 4 of the Commentary on Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention). Regardless of which party bears the burden of proof, an assessment of the fairness of the allocation of the burden of proof would have to be made in view of the other features of the jurisdiction’s tax system that have a bearing on the overall administration of transfer pricing rules, including the resolution of disputes. These features include penalties, examination practices, administrative appeals processes, rules regarding payment of interest with respect to tax assessments and refunds, whether proposed tax deficiencies must be paid before protesting an adjustment, the statute of limitations, and the extent to which rules are made known in advance. It would be inappropriate to rely on any of these features, including the burden of proof, to make unfounded assertions about transfer pricing. Some of these issues are discussed further in Chapter IV.
These Guidelines focus on the main issues of principle that arise in the transfer pricing area. The Committee on Fiscal Affairs intends to continue its work in this area. A revision of Chapters I-III and a new Chapter IX were approved in 2010, reflecting work undertaken by the Committee on comparability, on transactional profit methods and on the transfer pricing aspects of business restructurings. In 2013, the guidance on safe harbours was also revised in order to recognise that properly designed safe harbours can help to relieve some compliance burdens and provide taxpayers with greater certainty. Finally, in 2016 these Guidelines were substantially revised in order to reflect the clarifications and revisions agreed in the 2015 BEPS Reports on Actions 8-10 Aligning Transfer pricing Outcomes with Value Creation and on Action 13 Transfer Pricing Documentation and Country-by-Country Reporting. Future work will address the application of the transactional profit split method, the transfer pricing aspects of financial transactions, and intra-group services. The Committee intends to have regular reviews of the experiences of OECD member and selected non-member countries in applying the arm’s length principle in order to identify areas on which further work could be necessary.
This Chapter provides a background discussion of the arm’s length principle, which is the international transfer pricing standard that OECD member countries have agreed should be used for tax purposes by MNE groups and tax administrations. The Chapter discusses the arm’s length principle, reaffirms its status as the international standard, and sets forth guidelines for its application.
When independent enterprises transact with each other, the conditions of their commercial and financial relations (e.g. the price of goods transferred or services provided and the conditions of the transfer or provision) ordinarily are determined by market forces. When associated enterprises transact with each other, their commercial and financial relations may not be directly affected by external market forces in the same way, although associated enterprises often seek to replicate the dynamics of market forces in their transactions with each other, as discussed in paragraph 1.5 below. Tax administrations should not automatically assume that associated enterprises have sought to manipulate their profits. There may be a genuine difficulty in accurately determining a market price in the absence of market forces or when adopting a particular commercial strategy. It is important to bear in mind that the need to make adjustments to approximate arm’s length conditions arises irrespective of any contractual obligation undertaken by the parties to pay a particular price or of any intention of the parties to minimize tax. Thus, a tax adjustment under the arm’s length principle would not affect the underlying contractual obligations for non-tax purposes between the associated enterprises, and may be appropriate even where there is no intent to minimize or avoid tax. The consideration of transfer pricing should not be confused with the consideration of problems of tax fraud or tax avoidance, even though transfer pricing policies may be used for such purposes.
When transfer pricing does not reflect market forces and the arm’s length principle, the tax liabilities of the associated enterprises and the tax revenues of the host countries could be distorted. Therefore, OECD member countries have agreed that for tax purposes the profits of associated enterprises may be adjusted as necessary to correct any such distortions and thereby ensure that the arm’s length principle is satisfied. OECD member countries consider that an appropriate adjustment is achieved by establishing the conditions of the commercial and financial relations that they would expect to find between independent enterprises in comparable transactions under comparable circumstances.
Factors other than tax considerations may distort the conditions of commercial and financial relations established between associated enterprises. For example, such enterprises may be subject to conflicting governmental pressures (in the domestic as well as foreign country) relating to customs valuations, anti-dumping duties, and exchange or price controls. In addition, transfer price distortions may be caused by the cash flow requirements of enterprises within an MNE group. An MNE group that is publicly held may feel pressure from shareholders to show high profitability at the parent company level, particularly if shareholder reporting is not undertaken on a consolidated basis. All of these factors may affect transfer prices and the amount of profits accruing to associated enterprises within an MNE group.
It should not be assumed that the conditions established in the commercial and financial relations between associated enterprises will invariably deviate from what the open market would demand. Associated enterprises in MNEs sometimes have a considerable amount of autonomy and can often bargain with each other as though they were independent enterprises. Enterprises respond to economic situations arising from market conditions, in their relations with both third parties and associated enterprises. For example, local managers may be interested in establishing good profit records and therefore would not want to establish prices that would reduce the profits of their own companies. Tax administrations should keep these considerations in mind to facilitate efficient allocation of their resources in selecting and conducting transfer pricing examinations. Sometimes, it may occur that the relationship between the associated enterprises may influence the outcome of the bargaining. Therefore, evidence of hard bargaining alone is not sufficient to establish that the transactions are at arm’s length.
The authoritative statement of the arm’s length principle is found in paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention, which forms the basis of bilateral tax treaties involving OECD member countries and an increasing number of non-member countries. Article 9 provides:
[Where] conditions are made or imposed between the two [associated] enterprises in their commercial or financial relations which differ from those which would be made between independent enterprises, then any profits which would, but for those conditions, have accrued to one of the enterprises, but, by reason of those conditions, have not so accrued, may be included in the profits of that enterprise and taxed accordingly.
By seeking to adjust profits by reference to the conditions which would have obtained between independent enterprises in comparable transactions and comparable circumstances (i.e. in “comparable uncontrolled transactions”), the arm’s length principle follows the approach of treating the members of an MNE group as operating as separate entities rather than as inseparable parts of a single unified business. Because the separate entity approach treats the members of an MNE group as if they were independent entities, attention is focused on the nature of the transactions between those members and on whether the conditions thereof differ from the conditions that would be obtained in comparable uncontrolled transactions. Such an analysis of the controlled and uncontrolled transactions, which is referred to as a “comparability analysis”, is at the heart of the application of the arm’s length principle. Guidance on the comparability analysis is found in Section D below and in Chapter III.
It is important to put the issue of comparability into perspective in order to emphasise the need for an approach that is balanced in terms of, on the one hand, its reliability and, on the other, the burden it creates for taxpayers and tax administrations. Paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention is the foundation for comparability analyses because it introduces the need for:
There are several reasons why OECD member countries and other countries have adopted the arm’s length principle. A major reason is that the arm’s length principle provides broad parity of tax treatment for members of MNE groups and independent enterprises. Because the arm’s length principle puts associated and independent enterprises on a more equal footing for tax purposes, it avoids the creation of tax advantages or disadvantages that would otherwise distort the relative competitive positions of either type of entity. In so removing these tax considerations from economic decisions, the arm’s length principle promotes the growth of international trade and investment.
The arm’s length principle has also been found to work effectively in the vast majority of cases. For example, there are many cases involving the purchase and sale of commodities and the lending of money where an arm’s length price may readily be found in a comparable transaction undertaken by comparable independent enterprises under comparable circumstances. There are also many cases where a relevant comparison of transactions can be made at the level of financial indicators such as mark-up on costs, gross margin, or net profit indicators. Nevertheless, there are some significant cases in which the arm’s length principle is difficult and complicated to apply, for example, in MNE groups dealing in the integrated production of highly specialised goods, in unique intangibles, and/or in the provision of specialised services. Solutions exist to deal with such difficult cases, including the use of the transactional profit split method described in Chapter II, Part III of these Guidelines in those situations where it is the most appropriate method in the circumstances of the case.
The arm’s length principle is viewed by some as inherently flawed because the separate entity approach may not always account for the economies of scale and interrelation of diverse activities created by integrated businesses. There are, however, no widely accepted objective criteria for allocating between associated enterprises the economies of scale or benefits of integration resulting from group membership. The issue of possible alternatives to the arm’s length principle is discussed in Section C below.
A practical difficulty in applying the arm’s length principle is that associated enterprises may engage in transactions that independent enterprises would not undertake. Such transactions may not necessarily be motivated by tax avoidance but may occur because in transacting business with each other, members of an MNE group face different commercial circumstances than would independent enterprises. Where independent enterprises seldom undertake transactions of the type entered into by associated enterprises, the arm’s length principle is difficult to apply because there is little or no direct evidence of what conditions would have been established by independent enterprises. The mere fact that a transaction may not be found between independent parties does not of itself mean that it is not arm’s length.
In certain cases, the arm’s length principle may result in an administrative burden for both the taxpayer and the tax administrations of evaluating significant numbers and types of cross-border transactions. Although associated enterprises normally establish the conditions for a transaction at the time it is undertaken, at some point the enterprises may be required to demonstrate that these are consistent with the arm’s length principle. (See discussion of timing and compliance issues at Sections B and C of Chapter III and at Chapter V on Documentation). The tax administration may also have to engage in this verification process perhaps some years after the transactions have taken place. The tax administration would review any supporting documentation prepared by the taxpayer to show that its transactions are consistent with the arm’s length principle, and may also need to gather information about comparable uncontrolled transactions, the market conditions at the time the transactions took place, etc., for numerous and varied transactions. Such an undertaking usually becomes more difficult with the passage of time.
Both tax administrations and taxpayers often have difficulty in obtaining adequate information to apply the arm’s length principle. Because the arm’s length principle usually requires taxpayers and tax administrations to evaluate uncontrolled transactions and the business activities of independent enterprises, and to compare these with the transactions and activities of associated enterprises, it can demand a substantial amount of data. The information that is accessible may be incomplete and difficult to interpret; other information, if it exists, may be difficult to obtain for reasons of its geographical location or that of the parties from whom it may have to be acquired. In addition, it may not be possible to obtain information from independent enterprises because of confidentiality concerns. In other cases information about an independent enterprise which could be relevant may simply not exist, or there may be no comparable independent enterprises, e.g. if that industry has reached a high level of vertical integration. It is important not to lose sight of the objective to find a reasonable estimate of an arm’s length outcome based on reliable information. It should also be recalled at this point that transfer pricing is not an exact science but does require the exercise of judgment on the part of both the tax administration and taxpayer.
While recognizing the foregoing considerations, the view of OECD member countries continues to be that the arm’s length principle should govern the evaluation of transfer prices among associated enterprises. The arm’s length principle is sound in theory since it provides the closest approximation of the workings of the open market in cases where property (such as goods, other types of tangible assets, or intangible assets) is transferred or services are rendered between associated enterprises. While it may not always be straightforward to apply in practice, it does generally produce appropriate levels of income between members of MNE groups, acceptable to tax administrations. This reflects the economic realities of the controlled taxpayer’s particular facts and circumstances and adopts as a benchmark the normal operation of the market.
A move away from the arm’s length principle would abandon the sound theoretical basis described above and threaten the international consensus, thereby substantially increasing the risk of double taxation. Experience under the arm’s length principle has become sufficiently broad and sophisticated to establish a substantial body of common understanding among the business community and tax administrations. This shared understanding is of great practical value in achieving the objectives of securing the appropriate tax base in each jurisdiction and avoiding double taxation. This experience should be drawn on to elaborate the arm’s length principle further, to refine its operation, and to improve its administration by providing clearer guidance to taxpayers and more timely examinations. In sum, OECD member countries continue to support strongly the arm’s length principle. In fact, no legitimate or realistic alternative to the arm’s length principle has emerged. Global formulary apportionment, sometimes mentioned as a possible alternative, would not be acceptable in theory, implementation, or practice. (See Section C, immediately below, for a discussion of global formulary apportionment.)
Global formulary apportionment has sometimes been suggested as an alternative to the arm’s length principle as a means of determining the proper level of profits across national taxing jurisdictions. The approach has not been applied as between countries although it has been attempted by some local taxing jurisdictions.
Global formulary apportionment would allocate the global profits of an MNE group on a consolidated basis among the associated enterprises in different countries on the basis of a predetermined and mechanistic formula. There would be three essential components to applying global formulary apportionment: determining the unit to be taxed, i.e. which of the subsidiaries and branches of an MNE group should comprise the global taxable entity; accurately determining the global profits; and establishing the formula to be used to allocate the global profits of the unit. The formula would most likely be based on some combination of costs, assets, payroll, and sales.
Global formulary apportionment should not be confused with the transactional profit methods discussed in Part III of Chapter II. Global formulary apportionment would use a formula that is predetermined for all taxpayers to allocate profits whereas transactional profit methods compare, on a case-by-case basis, the profits of one or more associated enterprises with the profit experience that comparable independent enterprises would have sought to achieve in comparable circumstances. Global formulary apportionment also should not be confused with the selected application of a formula developed by both tax administrations in cooperation with a specific taxpayer or MNE group after careful analysis of the particular facts and circumstances, such as might be used in a mutual agreement procedure, advance pricing agreement, or other bilateral or multilateral determination. Such a formula is derived from the particular facts and circumstances of the taxpayer and thus avoids the globally pre-determined and mechanistic nature of global formulary apportionment.
Global formulary apportionment has been promoted as an alternative to the arm’s length principle by advocates who claim that it would provide greater administrative convenience and certainty for taxpayers. These advocates also take the position that global formulary apportionment is more in keeping with economic reality. They argue that an MNE group must be considered on a group-wide or consolidated basis to reflect the business realities of the relationships among the associated enterprises in the group. They assert that the separate accounting method is inappropriate for highly integrated groups because it is difficult to determine what contribution each associated enterprise makes to the overall profit of the MNE group.
Apart from these arguments, advocates contend that global formulary apportionment reduces compliance costs for taxpayers since in principle only one set of accounts would be prepared for the group for domestic tax purposes.
OECD member countries do not accept these propositions and do not consider global formulary apportionment a realistic alternative to the arm’s length principle, for the reasons discussed below.
The most significant concern with global formulary apportionment is the difficulty of implementing the system in a manner that both protects against double taxation and ensures single taxation. To achieve this would require substantial international coordination and consensus on the predetermined formulae to be used and on the composition of the group in question. For example, to avoid double taxation there would have to be common agreement to adopt the approach in the first instance, followed by agreement on the measurement of the global tax base of an MNE group, on the use of a common accounting system, on the factors that should be used to apportion the tax base among different jurisdictions (including non-member countries), and on how to measure and weight those factors. Reaching such agreement would be time-consuming and extremely difficult. It is far from clear that countries would be willing to agree to a universal formula.
Even if some countries were willing to accept global formulary apportionment, there would be disagreements because each country may want to emphasize or include different factors in the formula based on the activities or factors that predominate in its jurisdiction. Each country would have a strong incentive to devise formulae or formula weights that would maximise that country’s own revenue. In addition, tax administrations would have to consider jointly how to address the potential for artificially shifting the production factors used in the formula (e.g. sales, capital) to low tax countries. There could be tax avoidance to the extent that the components of the relevant formula can be manipulated, e.g. by entering into unnecessary financial transactions, by the deliberate location of mobile assets, by requiring that particular companies within an MNE group maintain inventory levels in excess of what normally would be encountered in an uncontrolled company of that type, and so on.
The transition to a global formulary apportionment system therefore would present enormous political and administrative complexity and require a level of international cooperation that is unrealistic to expect in the field of international taxation. Such multilateral coordination would require the inclusion of all major countries where MNEs operate. If all the major countries failed to agree to move to global formulary apportionment, MNEs would be faced with the burden of complying with two totally different systems. In other words, for the same set of transactions they would be forced to calculate the profits accruing to their members under two completely different standards. Such a result would create the potential for double taxation (or under-taxation) in every case.
There are other significant concerns in addition to the double taxation issues discussed above. One such concern is that predetermined formulae are arbitrary and disregard market conditions, the particular circumstances of the individual enterprises, and management’s own allocation of resources, thus producing an allocation of profits that may bear no sound relationship to the specific facts surrounding the transaction. More specifically, a formula based on a combination of cost, assets, payroll, and sales implicitly imputes a fixed rate of profit per currency unit (e.g. dollar, euro, yen) of each component to every member of the group and in every tax jurisdiction, regardless of differences in functions, assets, risks, and efficiencies and among members of the MNE group. Such an approach could potentially assign profits to an entity that would incur losses if it were an independent enterprise.
Another issue for global formulary apportionment is dealing with exchange rate movements. Although exchange rate movements can complicate application of the arm’s length principle they do not have the same impact as for global formulary apportionment; the arm’s length principle is better equipped to deal with the economic consequences of exchange rate movements because it requires the analysis of the specific facts and circumstances of the taxpayer. If the formula relies on costs, the result of applying a global formulary apportionment would be that as a particular currency strengthens in one country consistently against another currency in which an associated enterprise keeps its accounts, a greater share of the profit would be attributed to the enterprise in the first country to reflect the costs of its payroll nominally increased by the currency fluctuation. Thus, under a global formulary apportionment, the exchange rate movement in this example would lead to increasing the profits of the associated enterprise operating with the stronger currency whereas in the long run a strengthening currency makes exports less competitive and leads to a downward pressure on profits.
Contrary to the assertions of its advocates, global formulary apportionment may in fact present intolerable compliance costs and data requirements because information would have to be gathered about the entire MNE group and presented in each jurisdiction on the basis of the currency and the book and tax accounting rules of that particular jurisdiction. Thus, the documentation and compliance requirements for an application of global formulary apportionment would generally be more burdensome than under the separate entity approach of the arm’s length principle. The costs of a global formulary apportionment would be further magnified if not all countries could agree on the components of the formula or on the way the components are measured.
Difficulties also would arise in determining the sales of each member and in the valuation of assets (e.g. historic cost versus market value), especially in the valuation of intangibles. These difficulties would be compounded by the existence across taxing jurisdictions of different accounting standards and of multiple currencies. Accounting standards among all countries would have to be conformed in order to arrive at a meaningful measure of profit for the entire MNE group. Of course, some of these difficulties, for example the valuation of assets and intangibles, also exist under the arm’s length principle, although significant progress in respect of the latter has been made, whereas no credible solutions have been put forward under global formulary apportionment.
Global formulary apportionment would have the effect of taxing an MNE group on a consolidated basis and therefore abandons the separate entity approach. As a consequence, global formulary apportionment cannot, as a practical matter, recognize important geographical differences, separate company efficiencies, and other factors specific to one company or sub-grouping within the MNE group that may legitimately play a role in determining the division of profits between enterprises in different tax jurisdictions. The arm’s length principle, in contrast, recognizes that an associated enterprise may be a separate profit or loss centre with individual characteristics and economically may be earning a profit even when the rest of the MNE group is incurring a loss. Global formulary apportionment does not have the flexibility to account properly for this possibility.
By disregarding intra-group transactions for the purpose of computing consolidated profits, global formulary apportionment would raise questions about the relevance of imposing withholding taxes on cross-border payments between group members and would involve a rejection of a number of rules incorporated in bilateral tax treaties.
Unless global formulary apportionment includes every member of an MNE group, it must retain a separate entity rule for the interface between that part of the group subject to global formulary apportionment and the rest of the MNE group. Global formulary apportionment could not be used to value the transactions between the global formulary apportionment group and the rest of the MNE group. Thus, a clear disadvantage with global formulary apportionment is that it does not provide a complete solution to the allocation of profits of an MNE group unless global formulary apportionment is applied on the basis of the whole MNE group. This exercise would be a serious undertaking for a single tax administration given the size and scale of operations of major MNE groups and the information that would be required. The MNE group would also be required, in any event, to maintain separate accounting for corporations that are not members of the MNE group for global formulary apportionment tax purposes but that are still associated enterprises of one or more members of the MNE group. In fact, many domestic commercial and accountancy rules would still require the use of arm’s length prices (e.g. customs rules), so that irrespective of the tax provisions a taxpayer would have to book properly every transaction at arm’s length prices.