Category: Chapter III: Comparability Analysis
General guidance on comparability is found in Section D of Chapter I. By definition, a comparison implies examining two terms: the controlled transaction under review and the uncontrolled transactions that are regarded as potentially comparable. The search for comparables is only part of the comparability analysis. It should be neither confused with nor separated from the comparability analysis. The search for information on potentially comparable uncontrolled transactions and the process of identifying comparables is dependent upon prior analysis of the taxpayer’s controlled transaction and of the economically relevant characteristics or comparability factors (see Section D.1 of Chapter I). A methodical, consistent approach should provide some continuity or linkage in the whole analytical process, thereby maintaining a constant relationship amongst the various steps: from the preliminary analysis of the conditions of the controlled transaction, to the selection of the transfer pricing method, through to the identification of potential comparables and ultimately a conclusion about whether the controlled transactions being examined are consistent with the arm’s length principle as described in paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention.
As part of the process of selecting the most appropriate transfer pricing method (see paragraph 2.2) and applying it, the comparability analysis always aims at finding the most reliable comparables. Thus, where it is possible to determine that some uncontrolled transactions have a lesser degree of comparability than others, they should be eliminated (see also paragraph 3.56). This does not mean that there is a requirement for an exhaustive search of all possible sources of comparables as it is acknowledged that there are limitations in availability of information and that searches for comparables data can be burdensome. See also discussion of compliance efforts at paragraphs 3.80-3.83.
In order for the process to be transparent, it is considered a good practice for a taxpayer that uses comparables to support its transfer pricing, or a tax administration that uses comparables to support a transfer pricing adjustment, to provide appropriate supporting information for the other interested party (i.e. tax auditor, taxpayer or foreign competent authorities) to be able to assess the reliability of the comparables used. See paragraph 3.36 for a discussion of information available to tax administrations that is not disclosed to taxpayers. General guidance on documentation requirements is found at Chapter V of these Guidelines. See also the Annex to Chapter IV “Guidelines for conducting Advance Pricing Arrangements under the Mutual Agreement Procedure (MAP APAs)”.
Below is a description of a typical process that can be followed when performing a comparability analysis. This process is considered an accepted good practice but it is not a compulsory one, and any other search process leading to the identification of reliable comparables may be acceptable as reliability of the outcome is more important than process (i.e. going through the process does not provide any guarantee that the outcome will be arm’s length, and not going through the process does not imply that the outcome will not be arm’s length). Step 1: Determination of years to be covered. Step 2: Broad-based analysis of the taxpayer’s circumstances. Step 3: Understanding the controlled transaction(s) under examination, based in particular on a functional analysis, in order to choose the tested party (where needed), the most appropriate transfer pricing method to the circumstances of the case, the financial indicator that will be tested (in the case of a transactional profit method), and to identify the significant comparability factors that should be taken into account. Step 4: Review of existing internal comparables, if any. Step 5: Determination of available sources of information on external comparables where such external comparables are needed taking into account their relative reliability. Step 6: Selection of the most appropriate transfer pricing method and, depending on the method, determination of the relevant financial indicator (e.g. determination of the relevant net profit indicator in case of a transactional net margin method). Step 7: Identification of potential comparables: determining the key characteristics to be met by any uncontrolled transaction in order to be regarded as potentially comparable, based on the relevant factors identified in Step 3 and in accordance with the comparability factors set forth at Section D.1 of Chapter I. Step 8: Determination of and making comparability adjustments where appropriate. Step 9: Interpretation and use of data collected, determination of the arm’s length remuneration.
In practice, this process is not a linear one. Steps 5 to 7 in particular might need to be carried out repeatedly until a satisfactory conclusion is reached, i.e. the most appropriate method is selected, especially because the examination of available sources of information may in some instances influence the selection of the transfer pricing method. For instance, in cases where it is not possible to find information on comparable transactions (step 7) and/or to make reasonably accurate adjustments (step 8), taxpayers might have to select another transfer pricing method and repeat the process starting from step 4.
See paragraph 3.82 for a discussion of a process to establish, monitor and review transfer prices.
The “broad-based analysis” is an essential step in the comparability analysis. It can be defined as an analysis of the industry, competition, economic and regulatory factors and other elements that affect the taxpayer and its environment, but not yet within the context of looking at the specific transactions in question. This step helps understand the conditions in the taxpayer’s controlled transaction as well as those in the uncontrolled transactions to be compared, in particular the economic circumstances of the transaction (see paragraphs 1.110-1.113).
The review of the controlled transaction(s) under examination aims at identifying the relevant factors that will influence the selection of the tested party (where needed), the selection and application of the most appropriate transfer pricing method to the circumstances of the case, the financial indicator that will be tested (in the case of a transactional profit method), the selection of comparables and where relevant the determination of comparability adjustments.
Ideally, in order to arrive at the most precise approximation of arm’s length conditions, the arm’s length principle should be applied on a transaction-by-transaction basis. However, there are often situations where separate transactions are so closely linked or continuous that they cannot be evaluated adequately on a separate basis. Examples may include: a) some long-term contracts for the supply of commodities or services, b) rights to use intangible property, and c) pricing a range of closely-linked products (e.g. in a product line) when it is impractical to determine pricing for each individual product or transaction. Another example would be the licensing of manufacturing know-how and the supply of vital components to an associated manufacturer; it may be more reasonable to assess the arm’s length terms for the two items together rather than individually. Such transactions should be evaluated together using the most appropriate arm’s length method. A further example would be the routing of a transaction through another associated enterprise; it may be more appropriate to consider the transaction of which the routing is a part in its entirety, rather than consider the individual transactions on a separate basis. See example 26 of the Annex to Chapter VI.
Another example where a taxpayer’s transactions may be combined is related to portfolio approaches. A portfolio approach is a business strategy consisting of a taxpayer bundling certain transactions for the purpose of earning an appropriate return across the portfolio rather than necessarily on any single product within the portfolio. For instance, some products may be marketed by a taxpayer with a low profit or even at a loss, because they create a demand for other products and/or related services of the same taxpayer that are then sold or provided with high profits (e.g. equipment and captive aftermarket consumables, such as vending coffee machines and coffee capsules, or printers and cartridges). Similar approaches can be observed in various industries. Portfolio approaches are an example of a business strategy that may need to be taken into account in the comparability analysis and when examining the reliability of comparables. See paragraphs 1.114-1.118 on business strategies. However, as discussed in paragraphs 1.129-1.131, these considerations will not explain continued overall losses or poor performance over time. Moreover, in order to be acceptable, portfolio approaches must be reasonably targeted as they should not be used to apply a transfer pricing method at the taxpayer’s company-wide level in those cases where different transactions have different economic logic and should be segmented. See paragraphs 2.84-2.85. Finally, the above comments should not be misread as implying that it would be acceptable for one entity within an MNE group to have a below arm’s length return in order to provide benefits to another entity of the MNE group, see in particular paragraph 1.130.
While some separately contracted transactions between associated enterprises may need to be evaluated together in order to determine whether the conditions are arm’s length, other transactions contracted between such enterprises as a package may need to be evaluated separately. An MNE may package as a single transaction and establish a single price for a number of benefits such as licences for patents, know-how, and trademarks, the provision of technical and administrative services, and the lease of production facilities. This type of arrangement is often referred to as a package deal. Such comprehensive packages would be unlikely to include sales of goods, however, although the price charged for sales of goods may cover some accompanying services. In some cases, it may not be feasible to evaluate the package as a whole so that the elements of the package must be segregated. In such cases, after determining separate transfer pricing for the separate elements, the tax administration should nonetheless consider whether in total the transfer pricing for the entire package is arm’s length.
Even in uncontrolled transactions, package deals may combine elements that are subject to different tax treatment under domestic law or an income tax convention. For example, royalty payments may be subject to withholding tax but lease payments may be subject to net taxation. In such circumstances, it may still be appropriate to determine the transfer pricing on a package basis, and the tax administration could then determine whether for other tax reasons it is necessary to allocate the price to the elements of the package. In making this determination, tax administrations should examine the package deal between associated enterprises in the same way that they would analyse similar deals between independent enterprises. Taxpayers should be prepared to show that the package deal reflects appropriate transfer pricing.
An intentional set-off is one that associated enterprises incorporate knowingly into the terms of the controlled transactions. It occurs when one associated enterprise has provided a benefit to another associated enterprise within the group that is balanced to some degree by different benefits received from that enterprise in return. These enterprises may indicate that the benefit each has received should be set off against the benefit each has provided as full or part payment for those benefits so that only the net gain or loss (if any) on the transactions needs to be considered for purposes of assessing tax liabilities. For example, an enterprise may license another enterprise to use a patent in return for the provision of know-how in another connection and indicate that the transactions result in no profit or loss to either party. Such arrangements may sometimes be encountered between independent enterprises and should be assessed in accordance with the arm’s length principle in order to quantify the value of the respective benefits presented as set-offs.
Intentional set-offs may vary in size and complexity. Such set-offs may range from a simple balance of two transactions (such as a favourable selling price for manufactured goods in return for a favourable purchase price for the raw material used in producing the goods) to an arrangement for a general settlement balancing all benefits accruing to both parties over a period. Independent enterprises would be very unlikely to consider the latter type of arrangement unless the benefits could be sufficiently accurately quantified and the contract is created in advance. Otherwise, independent enterprises normally would prefer to allow their receipts and disbursements to flow independently of each other, taking any profit or loss resulting from normal trading.
Recognition of intentional set-offs does not change the fundamental requirement that for tax purposes the transfer prices for controlled transactions must be consistent with the arm’s length principle. It would be a good practice for taxpayers to disclose the existence of set-offs intentionally built into two or more transactions between associated enterprises and demonstrate (or acknowledge that they have relevant supporting information and have undertaken sufficient analysis to be able to show) that, after taking account of the set-offs, the conditions governing the transactions are consistent with the arm’s length principle.
It may be necessary to evaluate the transactions separately to determine whether they each satisfy the arm’s length principle. If the transactions are to be analysed together, care should be taken in selecting comparable transactions and regard had to the discussion at paragraphs 3.9-3.12. The terms of set-offs relating to international transactions between associated enterprises may not be fully consistent with those relating to purely domestic transactions between independent enterprises because of the differences in tax treatment of the set-off under different national tax systems or differences in the treatment of the payment under a bilateral tax treaty. For example, withholding tax would complicate a set-off of royalties against sales receipts.
A taxpayer may seek on examination a reduction in a transfer pricing adjustment based on an unintentional over-reporting of taxable income. Tax administrations in their discretion may or may not grant this request. Tax administrations may also consider such requests in the context of mutual agreement procedures and corresponding adjustments (see Chapter IV).
When applying a cost plus, resale price or transactional net margin method as described in Chapter II, it is necessary to choose the party to the transaction for which a financial indicator (mark-up on costs, gross margin, or net profit indicator) is tested. The choice of the tested party should be consistent with the functional analysis of the transaction. As a general rule, the tested party is the one to which a transfer pricing method can be applied in the most reliable manner and for which the most reliable comparables can be found, i.e. it will most often be the one that has the less complex functional analysis.
This can be illustrated as follows. Assume that company A manufactures two types of products, P1 and P2, that it sells to company B, an associated enterprise in another country. Assume that A is found to manufacture P1 products using valuable, unique intangibles that belong to B and following technical specifications set by B. Assume that in this P1 transaction, A only performs simple functions and does not make any valuable, unique contribution in relation to the transaction. The tested party for this P1 transaction would most often be A. Assume now that A is also manufacturing P2 products for which it owns and uses valuable unique intangibles such as valuable patents and trademarks, and for which B acts as a distributor. Assume that in this P2 transaction, B only performs simple functions and does not make any valuable, unique contribution in relation to the transaction. The tested party for the P2 transaction would most often be B.
In order to select and apply the most appropriate transfer pricing method to the circumstances of the case, information is needed on the comparability factors in relation to the controlled transaction under review and in particular on the functions, assets and risks of all the parties to the controlled transaction, including the foreign associated enterprise(s). Specifically, while one-sided methods (e.g. cost plus, resale price or transactional net margin method which are discussed in detail in Chapter II) only require examining a financial indicator or profit level indicator for one of the parties to the transaction (the “tested party” as discussed in paragraphs 3.18-3.19), some information on the comparability factors of the controlled transaction and in particular on the functional analysis of the non-tested party is also needed in order to appropriately characterise the controlled transaction and select the most appropriate transfer pricing method.
Where the most appropriate transfer pricing method in the circumstances of the case, determined following the guidance at paragraphs 2.1-2.12, is a transactional profit split, financial information on all the parties to the transaction, domestic and foreign, is needed. Given the two- sided nature of this method, the application of a transactional profit split necessitates particularly detailed information on the foreign associated enterprise party to the transaction. This includes information on the five comparability factors in order to appropriately characterise the relationship between the parties and demonstrate the appropriateness of the transactional profit split method, as well as financial information (the determination of the combined profits to be split and the splitting of the profits both rely on financial information pertaining to all the parties to the transaction, including the foreign associated enterprise). Accordingly, where the most appropriate transfer pricing method in the circumstances of the case is a transactional profit split, it would be reasonable to expect that taxpayers be ready to provide tax administrations with the necessary information on the foreign associated enterprise party to the transaction, including the financial data necessary to calculate the profit split. See Chapter V.
Where the most appropriate transfer pricing method in the circumstances of the case, determined following the guidance at paragraphs 2.1-2.12, is a one-sided method, financial information on the tested party is needed in addition to the information referred to in paragraph 3.20 – irrespective of whether the tested party is a domestic or foreign entity. So if the most appropriate method is a cost plus, resale price or transactional net margin method and the tested party is the foreign entity, sufficient information is needed to be able to reliably apply the selected method to the foreign tested party and to enable a review by the tax administration of the country of the non-tested party of the application of the method to the foreign tested party. On the other hand, once a particular one-sided method is chosen as the most appropriate method and the tested party is the domestic taxpayer, the tax administration generally has no reason to further ask for financial data of the foreign associated enterprise outside of that requested as part of the country-by-country or master file reporting requirements (see Chapter V).
As explained above, transfer pricing analysis necessitates some information to be available about foreign associated enterprises, the nature and extent of which depends especially on the transfer pricing method used. However gathering such information may present a taxpayer with difficulties that it does not encounter in producing its own information. These difficulties should be taken into account in developing rules and/or procedures on documentation.
A comparable uncontrolled transaction is a transaction between two independent parties that is comparable to the controlled transaction under examination. It can be either a comparable transaction between one party to the controlled transaction and an independent party (“internal comparable”) or between two independent enterprises, neither of which is a party to the controlled transaction (“external comparable”).
Comparisons of a taxpayer’s controlled transactions with other controlled transactions carried out by the same or another MNE group are irrelevant to the application of the arm’s length principle and therefore should not be used by a tax administration as the basis for a transfer pricing adjustment or by a taxpayer to support its transfer pricing policy.
The presence of minority shareholders may be one factor leading to the outcomes of a taxpayer’s controlled transactions being closer to arm’s length, but it is not determinative in and of itself. The influence of minority shareholders depends on a number of factors, including whether the minority shareholder has a participation in the capital of the parent company or in the capital of a subsidiary, and whether it has and actually exercises some influence on the pricing of intra-group transactions.
Step 4 of the typical process described at paragraph 3.4 is a review of existing internal comparables, if any. Internal comparables may have a more direct and closer relationship to the transaction under review than external comparables. The financial analysis may be easier and more reliable as it will presumably rely on identical accounting standards and practices for the internal comparable and for the controlled transaction. In addition, access to information on internal comparables may be both more complete and less costly.
On the other hand, internal comparables are not always more reliable and it is not the case that any transaction between a taxpayer and an independent party can be regarded as a reliable comparable for controlled transactions carried on by the same taxpayer. Internal comparables where they exist must satisfy the five comparability factors in the same way as external comparables, see paragraphs 1.33-1.118. Guidance on comparability adjustments also applies to internal comparables, see paragraphs 3.47-3.54. Assume for instance that a taxpayer manufactures a particular product, sells a significant volume thereof to its foreign associated retailer and a marginal volume of the same product to an independent party. In such a case, the difference in volumes is likely to materially affect the comparability of the two transactions. If it is not possible to make a reasonably accurate adjustment to eliminate the effects of such difference, the transaction between the taxpayer and its independent customer is unlikely to be a reliable comparable.
There are various sources of information that can be used to identify potential external comparables. This sub-section discusses particular issues that arise with respect to commercial databases, foreign comparables and information undisclosed to taxpayers. Additionally, whenever reliable internal comparables exist, it may be unnecessary to search for external ones, see paragraphs 3.27-3.28.
A common source of information is commercial databases, which have been developed by editors who compile accounts filed by companies with the relevant administrative bodies and present them in an electronic format suitable for searches and statistical analysis. They can be a practical and sometimes cost-effective way of identifying external comparables and may provide the most reliable source of information, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.
A number of limitations to commercial databases are frequently identified. Because these commercial databases rely on publicly available information, they are not available in all countries, since not all countries have the same amount of publicly available information about their companies. Moreover, where they are available, they do not include the same type of information for all the companies operating in a given country because disclosure and filing requirements may differ depending on the legal form of the company and on whether or not it is listed. Care must be exercised with respect to whether and how these databases are used, given that they are compiled and presented for non-transfer pricing purposes. It is not always the case that commercial databases provide information that is detailed enough to support the chosen transfer pricing method. Not all databases include the same level of detail and can be used with similar assurance. Importantly, it is the experience in many countries that commercial databases are used to compare the results of companies rather than of transactions because third party transactional information is rarely available. See paragraph 3.37 for a discussion of the use of non-transactional third party data.
It may be unnecessary to use a commercial database if reliable information is available from other sources, e.g. internal comparables. Where they are used, commercial databases should be used in an objective manner and genuine attempts should be made to use the databases to identify reliable comparable information.
Use of commercial databases should not encourage quantity over quality. In practice, performing a comparability analysis using a commercial database alone may give rise to concerns about the reliability of the analysis, given the quality of the information relevant to assessing comparability that is typically obtainable from a database. To address these concerns, database searches may need to be refined with other publicly available information, depending on the facts and circumstances. Such a refinement of the database search with other sources of information is meant to promote quality over standardised approaches and is valid both for database searches made by taxpayers/practitioners and for those made by tax administrations. It should be understood in light of the discussion of the costs and compliance burden created for the taxpayer at paragraphs 3.80-3.83.
There are also proprietary databases that are developed and maintained by some advisory firms. In addition to the issues raised above for commercial databases that are more broadly commercialised, proprietary databases also raise a further concern with respect to their coverage of data if they are based on a more limited portion of the market than commercial databases. When a taxpayer has used a proprietary database to support its transfer prices, the tax administration may request access to the database to review the taxpayer’s results, for obvious transparency reasons.
Taxpayers do not always perform searches for comparables on a country-by-country basis, e.g. in cases where there are insufficient data available at the domestic level and/or in order to reduce compliance costs where several entities of an MNE group have comparable functional analyses. Non-domestic comparables should not be automatically rejected just because they are not domestic. A determination of whether non- domestic comparables are reliable has to be made on a case-by-case basis and by reference to the extent to which they satisfy the five comparability factors. Whether or not one regional search for comparables can be reliably used for several subsidiaries of an MNE group operating in a given region of the world depends on the particular circumstances in which each of those subsidiaries operates. See paragraphs 1.112-1.113 on market differences and multi-country analyses. Difficulties may also arise from differing accounting standards.
Tax administrators may have information available to them from examinations of other taxpayers or from other sources of information that may not be disclosed to the taxpayer. However, it would be unfair to apply a transfer pricing method on the basis of such data unless the tax administration was able, within the limits of its domestic confidentiality requirements, to disclose such data to the taxpayer so that there would be an adequate opportunity for the taxpayer to defend its own position and to safeguard effective judicial control by the courts.
The transactional focus of transfer pricing methods and the question of a possible aggregation of the taxpayer’s controlled transactions are discussed at paragraphs 3.9-3.12. A different question is whether non- transactional third party data can provide reliable comparables for a taxpayer’s controlled transactions (or set of transactions aggregated consistently with the guidance at paragraphs 3.9-3.12). In practice, available third party data are often aggregated data, at a company-wide or segment level, depending on the applicable accounting standards. Whether such non- transactional third party data can provide reliable comparables for the taxpayer’s controlled transaction or set of transactions aggregated consistently with the guidance at paragraphs 3.9-3.12 depends in particular on whether the third party performs a range of materially different transactions. Where segmented data are available, they can provide better comparables than company-wide, non-segmented data, because of a more transactional focus, although it is recognised that segmented data can raise issues in relation to the allocation of expenses to various segments. Similarly, company-wide third party data may provide better comparables than third party segmented data in certain circumstances, such as where the activities reflected in the comparables correspond to the set of controlled transactions of the taxpayer.
The identification of potential comparables has to be made with the objective of finding the most reliable data, recognising that they will not always be perfect. For instance, independent transactions may be scarce in certain markets and industries. A pragmatic solution may need to be found, on a case-by-case basis, such as broadening the search and using information on uncontrolled transactions taking place in the same industry and a comparable geographical market, but performed by third parties that may have different business strategies, business models or other slightly different economic circumstances; information on uncontrolled transactions taking place in the same industry but in other geographical markets; or information on uncontrolled transactions taking place in the same geographical market but in other industries. The choice among these various options will depend on the facts and circumstances of the case, and in particular on the significance of the expected effects of comparability defects on the reliability of the analysis.
A transactional profit split method might in appropriate circumstances be considered without comparable data, e.g. where the absence of comparable data is due to the presence of unique and valuable intangibles contributed by each party to the transaction (see paragraph 2.115). However, even in cases where comparable data are scarce and imperfect, the selection of the most appropriate transfer pricing method should be consistent with the functional analysis of the parties, see paragraph 2.2.
There are basically two ways in which the identification of potentially comparable third party transactions can be conducted.
The first one, which can be qualified as the “additive” approach, consists of the person making the search drawing up a list of third parties that are believed to carry out potentially comparable transactions. Information is then collected on transactions conducted by these third parties to confirm whether they are in effect acceptable comparables, based on the pre-determined comparability criteria. This approach arguably gives well-focused results – all the transactions retained in the analysis are carried out by well-known players in the taxpayer’s market. As indicated above, in order to ensure a sufficient degree of objectivity it is important that the process followed be transparent, systematic and verifiable. The “additive” approach may be used as the sole approach where the person making the search has knowledge of a few third parties that are engaged in transactions that are comparable to the examined controlled transaction. It is worth noting that the “additive” approach presents similarities with the approach followed when identifying internal comparables. In practice, an “additive” approach may encompass both internal and external comparables.
The second possibility, the “deductive” approach, starts with a wide set of companies that operate in the same sector of activity, perform similar broad functions and do not present economic characteristics that are obviously different. The list is then refined using selection criteria and publicly available information (e.g. from databases, Internet sites, information on known competitors of the taxpayer). In practice, the “deductive” approach typically starts with a search on a database. It is therefore important to follow the guidance on internal comparables and on the sources of information on external comparables, see paragraphs 3.24-3.39. In addition, the “deductive” approach is not appropriate to all cases and all methods and the discussion in this section should not be interpreted as affecting the criteria for selecting a transfer pricing method set out in paragraphs 2.1-2.12.
In practice, both quantitative and qualitative criteria are used to include or reject potential comparables. Examples of qualitative criteria are found in product portfolios and business strategies. The most commonly observed quantitative criteria are: Size criteria in terms of Sales, Assets or Number of Employees. The size of the transaction in absolute value or in proportion to the activities of the parties might affect the relative competitive positions of the buyer and seller and therefore comparability. Intangible-related criteria such as ratio of Net Value of Intangibles/Total Net Assets Value, or ratio of Research and Development (R&D)/Sales where available: they may be used for instance to exclude companies with valuable intangibles or significant R&D activities when the tested party does not use valuable intangible assets nor participate in significant R&D activities. Criteria related to the importance of export sales (Foreign Sales/Total Sales), where relevant. Criteria related to inventories in absolute or relative value, where relevant. Other criteria to exclude third parties that are in particular special situations such as start-up companies, bankrupted companies, etc. when such peculiar situations are obviously not appropriate comparisons. The choice and application of selection criteria depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case and the above list is neither limitative nor prescriptive.
One advantage of the “deductive” approach is that it is more reproducible and transparent than the “additive”. It is also easier to verify because the review concentrates on the process and on the relevance of the selection criteria retained. On the other hand, it is acknowledged that the quality of the outcome of a “deductive” approach depends on the quality of the search tools on which it relies (e.g. quality of the database where a database is used and possibility to obtain detailed enough information). This can be a practical limitation in some countries where the reliability and usefulness of databases in comparability analyses are questionable.
It would not be appropriate to give systematic preference to one approach over the other because, depending on the circumstances of the case, there could be value in either the “additive” or the “deductive” approach, or in a combination of both. The “additive” and “deductive” approaches are often not used exclusively. In a typical “deductive” approach, in addition to searching public databases it is common to include third parties, for instance known competitors (or third parties that are known to carry out transactions potentially comparable to those of the taxpayer), which may otherwise not be found following a purely deductive approach, e.g. because they are classified under a different industry code. In such cases, the “additive” approach operates as a tool to refine a search that is based on a “deductive” approach.
The process followed to identify potential comparables is one of the most critical aspects of the comparability analysis and it should be transparent, systematic and verifiable. In particular, the choice of selection criteria has a significant influence on the outcome of the analysis and should reflect the most meaningful economic characteristics of the transactions compared. Complete elimination of subjective judgments from the selection of comparables would not be feasible, but much can be done to increase objectivity and ensure transparency in the application of subjective judgments. Ensuring transparency of the process may depend on the extent to which the criteria used to select potential comparables are able to be disclosed and the reasons for excluding some of the potential comparables are able to be explained. Increasing objectivity and ensuring transparency of the process may also depend on the extent to which the person reviewing the process (whether taxpayer or tax administration) has access to information regarding the process followed and to the same sources of data. Issues of documentation of the process of identifying comparables are discussed in Chapter V.
The need to adjust comparables and the requirement for accuracy and reliability are pointed out in these Guidelines on several occasions, both for the general application of the arm’s length principle and more specifically in the context of each method. 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 or that reasonably accurate adjustments can be made to eliminate the effect of any such differences. Whether comparability adjustments should be performed (and if so, what adjustments should be performed) in a particular case is a matter of judgment that should be evaluated in light of the discussion of costs and compliance burden at Section C.
Examples of comparability adjustments include adjustments for accounting consistency designed to eliminate differences that may arise from differing accounting practices between the controlled and uncontrolled transactions; segmentation of financial data to eliminate significant non- comparable transactions; adjustments for differences in capital, functions, assets, risks.
An example of a working capital adjustment designed to reflect differing levels of accounts receivable, accounts payable and inventory is provided in the Annex to Chapter III. The fact that such adjustments are found in practice does not mean that they should be performed on a routine or mandatory basis. Rather, the improvement to comparability should be shown when proposing these types of adjustments (as for any type of adjustment). Further, a significantly different level of relative working capital between the controlled and uncontrolled parties may result in further investigation of the comparability characteristics of the potential comparable.
Comparability adjustments should be considered if (and only if) they are expected to increase the reliability of the results. Relevant considerations in this regard include the materiality of the difference for which an adjustment is being considered, the quality of the data subject to adjustment, the purpose of the adjustment and the reliability of the approach used to make the adjustment.
It bears emphasis that comparability adjustments are only appropriate for differences that will have a material effect on the comparison. Some differences will invariably exist between the taxpayer’s controlled transactions and the third party comparables. A comparison may be appropriate despite an unadjusted difference, provided that the difference does not have a material effect on the reliability of the comparison. On the other hand, the need to perform numerous or substantial adjustments to key comparability factors may indicate that the third party transactions are in fact not sufficiently comparable.
It is not always the case that adjustments are warranted. For instance, an adjustment for differences in accounts receivable may not be particularly useful if major differences in accounting standards were also present that could not be resolved. Likewise, sophisticated adjustments are sometimes applied to create the false impression that the outcome of the comparables search is “scientific”, reliable and accurate.
It is not appropriate to view some comparability adjustments, such as for differences in levels of working capital, as “routine” and uncontroversial, and to view certain other adjustments, such as for country risk, as more subjective and therefore subject to additional requirements of proof and reliability. The only adjustments that should be made are those that are expected to improve comparability.
Ensuring the needed level of transparency of comparability adjustments may depend upon the availability of an explanation of any adjustments performed, the reasons for the adjustments being considered appropriate, how they were calculated, how they changed the results for each comparable and how the adjustment improves comparability. Issues regarding documentation of comparability adjustments are discussed in Chapter V.
In some cases it will be possible to apply the arm’s length principle to arrive at a single figure (e.g. price or margin) that is the most reliable to establish whether the conditions of a transaction are arm’s length. However, because transfer pricing is not an exact science, there will also be many occasions when the application of the most appropriate method or methods produces a range of figures all of which are relatively equally reliable. In these cases, differences in the figures that comprise the range may be caused by the fact that in general the application of the arm’s length principle only produces an approximation of conditions that would have been established between independent enterprises. It is also possible that the different points in a range represent the fact that independent enterprises engaged in comparable transactions under comparable circumstances may not establish exactly the same price for the transaction.
In some cases, not all comparable transactions examined will have a relatively equal degree of comparability. Where it is possible to determine that some uncontrolled transactions have a lesser degree of comparability than others, they should be eliminated.
It may also be the case that, while every effort has been made to exclude points that have a lesser degree of comparability, what is arrived at is a range of figures for which it is considered, given the process used for selecting comparables and limitations in information available on comparables, that some comparability defects remain that cannot be identified and/or quantified, and are therefore not adjusted. In such cases, if the range includes a sizeable number of observations, statistical tools that take account of central tendency to narrow the range (e.g. the interquartile range or other percentiles) might help to enhance the reliability of the analysis.
A range of figures may also result when more than one method is applied to evaluate a controlled transaction. For example, two methods that attain similar degrees of comparability may be used to evaluate the arm’s length character of a controlled transaction. Each method may produce an outcome or a range of outcomes that differs from the other because of differences in the nature of the methods and the data, relevant to the application of a particular method, used. Nevertheless, each separate range potentially could be used to define an acceptable range of arm’s length figures. Data from these ranges could be useful for purposes of more accurately defining the arm’s length range, for example when the ranges overlap, or for reconsidering the accuracy of the methods used when the ranges do not overlap. No general rule may be stated with respect to the use of ranges derived from the application of multiple methods because the conclusions to be drawn from their use will depend on the relative reliability of the methods employed to determine the ranges and the quality of the information used in applying the different methods.
Where the application of the most appropriate method (or, in relevant circumstances, of more than one method, see paragraph 2.12), produces a range of figures, a substantial deviation among points in that range may indicate that the data used in establishing some of the points may not be as reliable as the data used to establish the other points in the range or that the deviation may result from features of the comparable data that require adjustments. In such cases, further analysis of those points may be necessary to evaluate their suitability for inclusion in any arm’s length range.
If the relevant condition of the controlled transaction (e.g. price or margin) is within the arm’s length range, no adjustment should be made.
If the relevant condition of the controlled transaction (e.g. price or margin) falls outside the arm’s length range asserted by the tax administration, the taxpayer should have the opportunity to present arguments that the conditions of the controlled transaction satisfy the arm’s length principle, and that the result falls within the arm’s length range (i.e. that the arm’s length range is different from the one asserted by the tax administration). If the taxpayer is unable to establish this fact, the tax administration must determine the point within the arm’s length range to which it will adjust the condition of the controlled transaction.
In determining this point, where the range comprises results of relatively equal and high reliability, it could be argued that any point in the range satisfies the arm’s length principle. Where comparability defects remain as discussed at paragraph 3.57, it may be appropriate to use measures of central tendency to determine this point (for instance the median, the mean or weighted averages, etc., depending on the specific characteristics of the data set), in order to minimise the risk of error due to unknown or unquantifiable remaining comparability defects.
Extreme results might consist of losses or unusually high profits. Extreme results can affect the financial indicators that are looked at in the chosen method (e.g. the gross margin when applying a resale price, or a net profit indicator when applying a transactional net margin method). They can also affect other items, e.g. exceptional items which are below the line but nonetheless may reflect exceptional circumstances. Where one or more of the potential comparables have extreme results, further examination would be needed to understand the reasons for such extreme results. The reason might be a defect in comparability, or exceptional conditions met by an otherwise comparable third party. An extreme result may be excluded on the basis that a previously overlooked significant comparability defect has been brought to light, not on the sole basis that the results arising from the proposed “comparable” merely appear to be very different from the results observed in other proposed “comparables”.
An independent enterprise would not continue loss-generating activities unless it had reasonable expectations of future profits. See paragraphs 1.129-1.131. Simple or low risk functions in particular are not expected to generate losses for a long period of time. This does not mean however that loss-making transactions can never be comparable. In general, all relevant information should be used and there should not be any overriding rule on the inclusion or exclusion of loss-making comparables. Indeed, it is the facts and circumstances surrounding the company in question that should determine its status as a comparable, not its financial result.
Generally speaking, a loss-making uncontrolled transaction should trigger further investigation in order to establish whether or not it can be a comparable. Circumstances in which loss-making transactions/ enterprises should be excluded from the list of comparables include cases where losses do not reflect normal business conditions, and where the losses incurred by third parties reflect a level of risks that is not comparable to the one assumed by the taxpayer in its controlled transactions. Loss-making comparables that satisfy the comparability analysis should not however be rejected on the sole basis that they suffer losses.
A similar investigation should be undertaken for potential comparables returning abnormally large profits relative to other potential comparables.
There are timing issues in comparability with respect to the time of origin, collection and production of information on comparability factors and comparable uncontrolled transactions that are used in a comparability analysis. See paragraphs 5.27 and 5.36 of Chapter V for indications with respect to timing issues in the context of transfer pricing documentation requirements.
In principle, information relating to the conditions of comparable uncontrolled transactions undertaken or carried out during the same period of time as the controlled transaction (“contemporaneous uncontrolled transactions”) is expected to be the most reliable information to use in a comparability analysis, because it reflects how independent parties have behaved in an economic environment that is the same as the economic environment of the taxpayer’s controlled transaction. Availability of information on contemporaneous uncontrolled transactions may however be limited in practice, depending on the timing of collection.
In some cases, taxpayers establish transfer pricing documentation to demonstrate that they have made reasonable efforts to comply with the arm’s length principle at the time their intra-group transactions were undertaken, i.e. on an ex ante basis (hereinafter “the arm’s length price-setting” approach), based on information that was reasonably available to them at that point. Such information includes not only information on comparable transactions from previous years, but also information on economic and market changes that may have occurred between those previous years and the year of the controlled transaction. In effect, independent parties in comparable circumstances would not base their pricing decision on historical data alone.
In other instances, taxpayers might test the actual outcome of their controlled transactions to demonstrate that the conditions of these transactions were consistent with the arm’s length principle, i.e. on an ex post basis (hereinafter “the arm’s length outcome-testing” approach). Such test typically takes place as part of the process for establishing the tax return at year-end.
Both the arm’s length price-setting and the arm’s length outcome-testing approaches, as well as combinations of these two approaches, are found among OECD member countries. The issue of double taxation may arise where a controlled transaction takes place between two associated enterprises where different approaches have been applied and lead to different outcomes, for instance because of a discrepancy between market expectations taken into account in the arm’s length price-setting approach and actual outcomes observed in the arm’s length outcome-testing approach. See paragraphs 4.38 and 4.39. Competent authorities are encouraged to use their best efforts to resolve any double taxation issues that may arise from different country approaches to year-end adjustments and that may be submitted to them under a mutual agreement procedure (Article 25 of the OECD Model Tax Convention).
The question arises whether and if so how to take account in the transfer pricing analysis of future events that were unpredictable at the time of the testing of a controlled transaction, in particular where valuation at that time was highly uncertain. The question should be resolved, both by taxpayers and tax administrations, by reference to what independent enterprises would have done in comparable circumstances to take account of the valuation uncertainty in the pricing of the transaction.
The reasoning that is found at paragraphs 6.181-6.185, which provide guidance on the arm’s length pricing of transactions involving intangibles for which valuation is highly uncertain at the time of the transactions, applies by analogy to other types of transactions with valuation uncertainties. The main question is to determine whether the valuation was sufficiently uncertain at the outset that the parties at arm’s length would have required a price adjustment mechanism, or whether the change in value was so fundamental a development that it would have led to a renegotiation of the transaction. Where this is the case, the tax administration would be justified in determining the arm’s length price for the transaction on the basis of the adjustment clause or re-negotiation that would be provided at arm’s length in a comparable uncontrolled transaction. In other circumstances, where there is no reason to consider that the valuation was sufficiently uncertain at the outset that the parties would have required a price adjustment clause or would have renegotiated the terms of the agreement, there is no reason for tax administrations to make such an adjustment as it would represent an inappropriate use of hindsight. The mere existence of uncertainty should not require an ex post adjustment without a consideration of what independent enterprises would have done or agreed between them.
Data from years following the year of the transaction may also be relevant to the analysis of transfer prices, but care must be taken to avoid the use of hindsight. For example, data from later years may be useful in comparing product life cycles of controlled and uncontrolled transactions for the purpose of determining whether the uncontrolled transaction is an appropriate comparable to use in applying a particular method. The conduct of the parties in years following the transaction will also be relevant in accurately delineating the actual transaction.
In practice, examining multiple year data is often useful in a comparability analysis, but it is not a systematic requirement. Multiple year data should be used where they add value to the transfer pricing analysis. It would not be appropriate to set prescriptive guidance as to the number of years to be covered by multiple year analyses.
In order to obtain a complete understanding of the facts and circumstances surrounding the controlled transaction, it generally might be useful to examine data from both the year under examination and prior years. The analysis of such information might disclose facts that may have influenced (or should have influenced) the determination of the transfer price. For example, the use of data from past years will show whether a taxpayer’s reported loss on a transaction is part of a history of losses on similar transactions, the result of particular economic conditions in a prior year that increased costs in the subsequent year, or a reflection of the fact that a product is at the end of its life cycle. Such an analysis may be particularly useful where a transactional profit method is applied. See paragraph 1.131 on the usefulness of multiple year data in examining loss situations. Multiple year data can also improve the understanding of long term arrangements.
Multiple year data will also be useful in providing information about the relevant business and product life cycles of the comparables. Differences in business or product life cycles may have a material effect on transfer pricing conditions that needs to be assessed in determining comparability. The data from earlier years may show whether the independent enterprise engaged in a comparable transaction was affected by comparable economic conditions in a comparable manner, or whether different conditions in an earlier year materially affected its price or profit so that it should not be used as a comparable.
Multiple year data can also improve the process of selecting third party comparables e.g. by identifying results that may indicate a significant variance from the underlying comparability characteristics of the controlled transaction being reviewed, in some cases leading to the rejection of the comparable, or to detect anomalies in third party information.
The use of multiple year data does not necessarily imply the use of multiple year averages. Multiple year data and averages can however be used in some circumstances to improve reliability of the range. See paragraphs 3.57-3.62 for a discussion of statistical tools.
One question that arises when putting the need for comparability analyses into perspective is the extent of the burden and costs that should be borne by a taxpayer to identify possible comparables and obtain detailed information thereon. It is recognised that the cost of information can be a real concern, especially for small to medium sized operations, but also for those MNEs that deal with a very large number of controlled transactions in many countries. Paragraph 4.28 and Chapter V contain explicit recognition of the need for a reasonable application of the requirement to document comparability.
When undertaking a comparability analysis, there is no requirement for an exhaustive search of all possible relevant sources of information. Taxpayers and tax administrations should exercise judgment to determine whether particular comparables are reliable.
It is a good practice for taxpayers to set up a process to establish, monitor and review their transfer prices, taking into account the size of the transactions, their complexity, level of risk involved, and whether they are performed in a stable or changing environment. Such a practical approach would conform to a pragmatic risk assessment strategy or prudent business management principle. In practice, this means that it may be reasonable for a taxpayer to devote relatively less effort to finding information on comparables supporting less significant or less material controlled transactions. For simple transactions that are carried out in a stable environment and the characteristics of which remain the same or similar, a detailed comparability (including functional) analysis may not be needed every year.
Small to medium sized enterprises are entering into the area of transfer pricing and the number of cross-border transactions is ever increasing. Although the arm’s length principle applies equally to small and medium sized enterprises and transactions, pragmatic solutions may be appropriate in order to make it possible to find a reasonable response to each transfer pricing case.