Category: A. Introduction
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.