UN Manual on Transfer Pricing (2017)

B.3. Methods


B .3 .1 .       Introduction to Transfer Pricing Methods

B.3.1.1.                         This part of the chapter describes several transfer pricing methods that can be used to determine an arm’s length price and describes how to apply these methods in practice. Transfer pricing methods (or “methodologies”) are used to calculate or test the arm’s length nature of prices or profits. Transfer pricing methods are ways of establishing arm’s length prices or profits from transactions between associated enterprises. The transaction between related enterprises for which an arm’s length price is to be established is referred to as the “controlled transaction”. The application of transfer pricing methods helps assure that transactions conform to the arm’s length standard. It is important to note that although the term “profit margin” is used, companies may also have legitimate reasons to report losses at arm’s length. Furthermore, transfer pricing methods are not determinative in and of themselves. If an associated enterprise reports an arm’s length amount of income, without the explicit use of one of the recognized transfer pricing methods, this does not mean that its pricing should automatically be regarded as not being at arm’s length and there may be no reason to impose adjustments.

B.3.1.2.           Selection of Methods (How, Why and Use of Methods)

B.            The selection of a transfer pricing method serves to find the most appropriate method for a particular case. Considerations involved in selecting a method can include: the respective strengths and weaknesses of each method; the nature of the controlled transaction; the availability of reliable information (in particular on uncontrolled comparables) needed to apply the selected method; and the degree of comparability between the controlled and uncontrolled transactions.

B.            The starting point in selecting a method is an understanding of the controlled transaction (inbound or outbound), in particular based on the functional analysis which is necessary regardless of which transfer pricing method is selected. The functional analysis is a major part of selecting the transfer pricing method as it helps:

  • To identify and understand the intra-group transactions;
  • To identify the characteristics that would make a particular transaction or function suitable for use as a comparable;
  • To determine any necessary adjustments to the comparables;
  • To check the relative reliability of the method selected; and
  • Over time, to determine if modification of the method is appropriate because the transaction, function, allocation of risks or allocation of assets have been modified.

B.            The major components of a functional analysis are analyzes of the functions, assets and risks. The functional analysis is described and discussed in detail in Chapter B.2, at Paragraph B. Appendix I provides examples of a functional analysis for a manufacturing business and a distribution business. A summary is provided here for context in the case of selection of appropriate methods.

B.            The functions performed: The functional analysis describes the activities performed such as design, purchasing, inbound logistics, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), assembling, inventory management, outbound logistics, marketing and sales activities, after sale services, supporting activities, services, advertising, financing and management, etc. The functional analysis must specify which party performs each activity and in case both parties are involved in performing an activity it should provide for the relevant differences; for example if both have inventories but Company A holds inventories for a period of up to two years whereas Company B holds inventories for a period of one month. The activities that add most value must be identified and should be discussed in more detail.

B.            The risks undertaken: The functional analysis should identify risks undertaken. Examples are: financial risk (currency, interest rate, funding risks etc.) credit and collection risk (trading credit risk, commercial credit risk), operational risk (systems failure risk), commodity price risk, inventory risk and carrying costs, R&D risk, environmental and other regulatory risks, market risk (country political risk, reliability of customers, fluctuation in demand and prices) and product risk (product liability risk, warranty risk and costs and contract enforceability). A risk-bearing party would expect to have higher earnings than a non-risk bearing party, and will incur the expenses and perhaps related loss if and when risk materializes.

B.  The assets used or contributed: The functional analysis must identify and distinguish between tangible and intangible assets. Tangible assets such as property, plant and equipment have to be financed and an investment in such capital assets would usually be expected to earn a long term return based on the use and risk level  of the investment. Intangible assets are very important as substantial competitive advantage is often achieved by the use of intangible assets. Some intangibles have legal protection (e.g. patents, trademarks, trade names) but other intangibles with less legal protection may be equally important and valuable (e.g. know-how, trade secrets, marketing intangibles, etc.).

B.            Interplay of above factors: Today, in a multinational group, operations tend to be more integrated across jurisdictional boundaries and the functions, risks and assets are often shared between entities in different jurisdictions. This makes functional analyzes both more difficult and more necessary. The functional analysis can help identify which functions, risks and assets are attributable to the various related parties. For example, the functional analysis may reveal that one company performs one particular function but the cost of this  is borne by the other party to the transaction. The functional analysis could highlight that situation and consider the legal allocation of risk and the economic substance of the transaction. Another example would be where a company performs one particular function and bears the cost thereof but the benefit also accrues to the other party to the transaction. The functional analysis could emphasize that situation and consider which party bears the risk in legal terms and which party bears the risk according to the economic substance of the transaction. The functional analysis typically includes a discussion of the industry in which the tested party operates, the contractual terms of the transaction at issue, the economic circumstances of the parties and the business strategies they employ. The functional analysis helps to identify the operations that benefit a related party and require an arm’s length return.

B.            Selecting a method after the functional analysis: Once the functional analysis is performed the application of a transfer pricing method, with the associated evaluation of comparable transactions, may be considered. Transfer pricing methods typically use information on comparables; the lack of such comparables can make a particular method— even one that might seem initially preferred— inapplicable, and a different method more reliable. These comparable transactions are also referred to as “uncontrolled transactions” because the parties involved in the transactions are independent of each other. Although uncontrolled transactions of independent unrelated companies are usually used as comparables for transfer pricing purposes, in practice it is sometimes not possible to identify reliable comparable data in the same markets. In such cases practical solutions should be sought in good faith by taxpayers and the tax administration. Comparability issues are discussed in more detail at Chapter B.2.

B.            Solutions for cases where comparables are difficult to find may include the following:

  • Searching for comparables in other industries where such comparable companies have similar functions, assets and risks;
  • Searching for comparables in other geographical regions that share certain key similarities with the country in which a company conducts its business; and
  • Using industry analyzes (publicly available or conducted internally by the company) to identify profit levels that can reasonably be expected for various routine functions (e.g. production, services, distribution).

The suggestions above are not intended to be exhaustive, neither is any preference implied by the ordering of the alternatives. Rather, the approaches above are presented as examples of what might be done and are included for information purposes only. Due to the difficulty in obtaining access to (publicly available) data, in certain instances methods other than the ones presented above may need to be used.

B.          Intangibles: Among the factors to be considered to select the most appropriate method in the circumstances of the case it is important to determine which party has developed or acquired the intangibles used and in what capacity, which party has the legal ownership and which party receives the benefit of the intangibles. The party that developed the intangibles should be able to obtain benefits from those intangibles for example through:

  • A sale or licensing of the intangibles to another party who exploits it; or
  • Exploiting the intangible itself, for example by way of an increase in the price of products or services that make use of such intangibles.

B.3.1.3.          Choice of Available Methods

B.            There are two general categories of methods. “Traditional Transaction Methods”, consisting of the Comparable Uncontrolled Price, Cost Plus and Resale Price Methods. The “Transactional Profit Methods” consist of the Transactional Net Margin Method and the Profit Split Method. A number of jurisdictions also apply “other methods” which are considered to provide arm’s length results; however, it needs to be ensured that such methods are consistent with the arm’s length principle.

B.            No preference for particular methods is being advocated in this Manual. The most suitable method should be chosen taking into consideration the facts and circumstances. The taxpayer should for example take into account the type of transaction, the functional analysis, comparability factors, availability of comparable transactions and the possibility of making adjustments to the data to improve comparability. For further discussion on this issue, see Chapter B.2.

B.            Once a method is chosen and applied, taxpayers are generally expected to apply the method in a consistent fashion. Assuming that an appropriate transfer pricing method is being applied, a change in the method is typically required only if there are any changes in the facts, functionalities or availability of data.

B .3 .2 .       Traditional Transaction Methods

B.3.2.1.          Comparable Uncontrolled Price

B.            The Comparable Uncontrolled Price (CUP) Method compares the price charged for property or services transferred in a controlled transaction to the price charged for property or services transferred in a comparable uncontrolled transaction in comparable circumstances. The CUP Method may also sometimes be used to determine the arm’s length royalty for the use of an intangible asset. CUPs may be based on either “internal” comparable transactions or on “external” comparable transactions. Figure B.3.1 below explains this distinction in the context of a particular case study.

Figure B.3.1:

Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method



Transaction #3 (External)

Controlled transaction

                              Uncontrolled transaction

B.            Facts of the Case Study: The controlled transaction in this figure involves the transfer of bicycles between Associated Enterprise 1, a bicycle manufacturer in Country 1, and Associated Enterprise 2, a bicycle importer in Country 2, which purchases, imports and resells the bicycles to unrelated bicycle dealers in Country 2. Associated Enterprise 1 is the parent company of Associated Enterprise 2.

B.            In applying the CUP Method to determine whether the price charged for bicycles transferred in this controlled transaction is at arm’s length, the following information is assumed to be available for consideration:

  •  The price charged for bicycles transferred in a comparable uncontrolled transaction between Associated Enterprise 1 and Unrelated Party C (i.e. transaction #1);
  •  The price charged for bicycles transferred in a comparable uncontrolled transaction between Associated Enterprise 2 and Unrelated Party A (i.e. transaction #2); and
  •  The price paid for bicycles transferred in a comparable uncontrolled transaction between Unrelated Party A and Unrelated Party B (i.e. transaction #3).

B.            Comparable uncontrolled transactions, such as transaction #1 or #2, which involve a transaction between the tested party and an uncontrolled party, are referred to as internal comparables. Comparable uncontrolled transactions such as transaction #3, which involves a transaction between two parties neither of which is an associated enterprise, are called external comparables. The application of the CUP Method involves a detailed transactional comparison whereby the controlled and uncontrolled transactions are compared based on the five comparability factors mentioned in Chapter B.2.

B.3.2.2.          Comparability in Application of the CUP Method

B.   When applying the CUP Method, an uncontrolled transaction is considered comparable to a controlled transaction if:

  • There are no differences in the transactions being compared that would materially affect the price; or
  • Reasonably accurate adjustments can be performed to account for material differences between the controlled and the uncontrolled transaction.

B.   In performing the comparability analysis, the controlled transactions and uncontrolled transactions should be compared based on the comparability factors mentioned earlier and stated in detail  in Chapter B.2. In determining the degree of comparability between the controlled transactions and uncontrolled transaction #1 in Figure B.3.1, for example, the following factors should be taken into account:

(i)  characteristics of property being transferred or services provided,

(ii)   contractual terms, (iii) economic circumstances and (iv) business strategies. For the functional analysis it is necessary to analyze the functions performed, the risks assumed and the assets used.

B.   Product comparability should be closely examined in applying the CUP Method. A price may be materially influenced by differences between the goods or services transferred in the controlled and uncontrolled transactions. The CUP Method is appropriate especially in cases where an independent enterprise buys or sells products that are identical or very similar to those sold in the controlled transaction or in situations where services are rendered that are identical or very similar to those rendered in the controlled transaction.

B.   Although product comparability is important in applying the CUP Method, the other comparability factors should not be disregarded. Contractual terms and economic conditions are also important comparability factors. Where there are differences between controlled and uncontrolled transactions, adjustments should be made to enhance reliability.

B.   Reasonably accurate adjustments may be possible for differences in:

  • The type and quality of the products. E.g. unbranded Kenyan as compared with unbranded Brazilian coffee beans;
  • Delivery terms. E.g. Associated Enterprise 1 in Figure B.3.1 sells similar bicycles to Associated Enterprise 2 and Unrelated Party
  1. All relevant information on the controlled and uncontrolled transactions is available to Associated Enterprise 1, and hence it is probable that all material differences between the trans actions can be recognized. The uncontrolled price can be adjusted for the difference in delivery terms to eliminate the effect of this difference on the price;
  • Volume of sales and related discounts. E.g. Associated Enterprise 1 sells 5000 bicycles to Associated Enterprise 2 for US$90 per bicycle, while it sells 1000 similar bicycles to Unrelated Party C. The effect of the differences in volume on price should be analyzed, and if the effect is material adjustments should be made perhaps based on volume discounts in similar markets;
  • Product characteristics. E.g. the uncontrolled transactions to an unrelated party in Figure B.3.1 involve bicycles on which modifications have been made. However, the bicycles sold in the controlled transactions do not include these modifications. If the product modifications have a material effect on price, then the uncontrolled price should be adjusted to take into account this difference in price);
  • Contractual terms. E.g. Associated Enterprise 1 sells the bicycles to Associated Enterprise 2 offering a 90 day credit term but the contract terms dictate that all sales to Unrelated Party C are Cash On Delivery;
  • Risk incurred. E.g. Associated Enterprise 1 is exposed to inventory risk related to sales by Associated Enterprise 2 and the risk that customers of Associated Enterprise 2 will default on their bicycle purchase loans; whereas in the transaction between Associated Enterprise 1 and Unrelated Party C, the latter is exposed to the inventory risk and the risk of its customers’ default. This difference in risk allocation must be analyzed and its effect on price quantified before Associated Party 2’s prices and Unrelated Party C’s prices can be considered comparable; and
  • Geographical factors. E.g. Associated Enterprise 1 sells bicycles to Associated Enterprise 2 located in South Africa, while Unrelated Party C, to which it also sells the same bicycles, is located in Egypt. The only material difference that could be identified between the controlled and uncontrolled transactions concerns the locale. To perform adjustments to account for this difference one might have to consider, for example, differences in inflation rates between South Africa and Egypt, the competitiveness of the bicycle market in the two countries and differences in government regulations if relevant.

B.   Reasonably accurate adjustments may not be possible for:

  • Unique and valuable trademarks. E.g. assuming Associated Enterprise 1 in Figure B.3.1 is engaged in manufacturing high value branded goods, and attaches its valuable trademark to the goods transferred in the controlled transaction, while uncontrolled transaction #1 concerns the transfer of goods that are not branded. The effect of the trademark on the price of a watch may be material. However, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to adjust for effect of the trademark on price since the trademark is an intangible asset that is unique. If reasonably accurate adjustments cannot be made to account for a material product difference the CUP Method may not be the appropriate method for the transaction; and
  • Fundamental differences in the products E.g. if the products being sold are significantly different from the products sold in the proposed comparable transaction it may not be possible to adjust for the product differences.

B.   Notwithstanding the difficulties often associated with adjustments to address the sources of non-comparability described above, the need to make adjustments should not automatically prevent the use of the CUP Method. It is often possible to perform reasonably accurate adjustments. If reasonable adjustments cannot be performed the reliability of the CUP Method is decreased. In these circumstances another transfer pricing method may be more appropriate.

B.3.2.3.          Strengths and Weaknesses of the CUP Method

B.      The strengths of the CUP Method include that it:

  • Is a two-sided analysis as the price used reflects the agreed price between two unrelated parties to the transaction;
  • Avoids the issue of which of the related parties involved in the controlled transaction should be treated as the tested party for transfer pricing purposes;
  • Involves a direct transactional comparison of a similar transaction between unrelated parties. That is, it is a more direct measure of the arm’s length price than the other methods, all of which indirectly determine arm’s length prices through evaluation of the arm’s length profits. As it is a more direct measure, the CUP Method is less susceptible to differences in non-transfer pricing factors (such as differences in the accounting treatment of costs between controlled and uncontrolled parties); and
  • May be more readily used in instances such as, for example, transactions involving commodity products.

B.      The weakness of the CUP Method lies in the difficulty of finding comparable uncontrolled transactions in the light of the comparability standards that must be observed, particularly with respect to the comparability of products, intellectual property or services.

B.3.2.4.          When to Use the CUP Method

B.      In cases where comparable uncontrolled transactions can be found, the CUP Method is typically a very reliable method to use in determining whether the terms of commercial and financial transactions between associated enterprises are at arm’s length. This implies that an examiner should always consider the feasibility of applying the CUP Method. That is, an examiner should consider whether it is possible to locate acceptable internal comparables and external comparables. Consequently, a question that should be asked in any analysis is whether one of the associated enterprises involved is engaged in transactions with independent enterprises.

B.      In the example represented in Figure B.3.1 above, this would involve two distinct questions: (i) whether Associated Enterprise 1 sells comparable bicycles to an unrelated party and (ii) whether Associated Enterprise 2 purchases comparable bicycles from one or more unrelated bicycle manufacturers. If the answer to either one of these questions is in the affirmative, then the next step in the analysis is to determine the degree of comparability between the controlled and uncontrolled transactions based on the comparability factors.

B.      External comparables may be difficult to find in practice unless the transactions involve a fairly common and homogeneous product or service. However, the advantages of the CUP Method are great enough to warrant a significant effort to apply the method.

B.      Experience indicates that the CUP Method will be most useful where:

  • One of the associated enterprises involved in the transaction is engaged in comparable uncontrolled transactions with an independent enterprise (i.e. an internal comparable is available). In such a case all relevant information on the uncontrolled transactions is available and it is therefore probable that all material differences between controlled and uncontrolled transactions will be identified; and
  • The transactions involve commodity type products, but the differences between the products are minor.

B.3.2.5.          Case Examples of Use of the CUP Method

B .3 .2 .5 .1 . Example 1: Comparable Sales of Same Product

MCO, a manufacturer, sells the same product to both controlled and uncontrolled distributors. The circumstances surrounding the controlled and uncontrolled transactions are substantially the same, except that the controlled sales price is a delivered price and the uncontrolled sales are made free on board (f.o.b.) MCO’s factory (which means the buyer takes responsibility for delivery costs of the goods for the remainder of their transit). Differences in the contractual terms of transportation and insurance generally have a definite and reasonably ascertainable effect on price, and adjustments are made to the results of the uncontrolled transaction to account for such differences. No other material difference has been identified between the controlled and uncontrolled transactions. As MCO is engaged in both controlled and uncontrolled transactions, it is likely that all material differences between the two transactions have been identified. In addition, the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method is applied to an uncontrolled comparable with no product differences, and there are only minor contractual differences that have a definite and reasonably ascertainable effect on price. The results of this application of the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method will therefore provide the most direct and reliable measure of an arm’s length result.

B .3 .2 .5 .2 . Example 2: Effect of Trademark

The facts are the same as in Example 1 except that MCO affixes its valuable trademark to the property sold in the controlled transactions but does not affix its trademark to the property sold in the uncontrolled transactions. Under the facts of this case the effect on price of the trademark is material and cannot be reliably estimated. As there are material product differences for which reliable adjustments cannot be made the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method is unlikely to provide a reliable measure of the arm’s length result.


B .3 .2 .5 .3 . Example 3: Minor Product Differences

The facts are the same as in Example 1 except that MCO, which manufactures business machines, makes minor modifications to the physical properties of the machines to satisfy specific requirements of a customer in controlled sales. MCO does not, however, make these modifications in uncontrolled sales. Only if the minor physical differences in the product have a material effect on prices should adjustments be made to the results of the uncontrolled transactions to account for these differences. These adjusted results may then be used as a measure of the arm’s length result.


B .3 .2 .5 .4 . Example 4: Effect of Geographic Differences

FM, a specialty radio manufacturer, sells its radios to a controlled distributor, AM, within the western region of Country A. FM sells its radios to uncontrolled distributors to serve other regions in Country A. The product sold in the controlled and uncontrolled transactions is the same and all other circumstances surrounding the controlled and uncontrolled transactions are substantially the same other than the geographic differences. If the geographic differences are unlikely to have a material effect on price, or they have definite and reasonably ascertainable effects for which adjustments are made, then the adjusted results of the uncontrolled sales may be used under the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method to establish an arm’s length price. If the effects of the geographic differences would be material but cannot be reliably ascertained, then the reliability of the results will be diminished. However, the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method may still provide the most reliable measure of an arm’s length result.


B.3.2.6.          Resale Price Method

B.      The Resale Price Method (RPM) is one of the traditional transaction methods that can be used to determine whether a transaction reflects the arm’s length principle. The Resale Price Method focuses on the related sales company which performs marketing and selling functions as the tested party in the transfer pricing analysis. This is depicted in Figure B.3.2 below.

B.      The Resale Price Method analyzes the price of a product that a related sales company (i.e. Associated Enterprise 2 in Figure B.3.2) charges to an unrelated customer (i.e. the resale price) to determine an arm’s length gross margin, which the sales company retains to cover its sales, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses, and still make an appropriate profit. The appropriate profit level is based on the functions it performs and the risks it incurs. The remainder of the product’s price is regarded as the arm’s length price for the inter-company transactions between the sales company (i.e. Associated Enterprise 2) and a related company (i.e. Associated Enterprise 1). As the method is based on arm’s length gross profits rather than directly determining arm’s length prices (as with the CUP Method) the Resale Price Method requires less direct transactional (product) comparability than the CUP Method.

Figure B.3.2:

Independent Enterprise

Resale Price Method



Associated Enterprise 2
Associated Enterprise 1

Arm’s length price?

Given price

Given price = US$100
Resale price margin (25%) = US$ 25
Arm’s length price = US$ 75

B.      Consequently, under the RPM the starting point of the analysis for using the method is the sales company. Under this method the transfer price for the sale of products between the sales company (i.e. Associated Enterprise 2) and a related company (i.e. Associated Enterprise 1) can be described in the following formula:

TP = RSP x (1-GPM), where:

  • TP = the Transfer Price of a product sold between a sales company and a related company;
  • RSP = the Resale Price at which a product is sold by a sales company to unrelated customers; and
  • GPM = the Gross Profit Margin that a specific sales company should earn, defined as the ratio of gross profit to net sales. Gross profit is defined as Net Sales minus Cost of Goods Sold.

B .3 .2 .6 .4 . Example of Resale Price Method Application

It is assumed that the resale price in Figure B.3.2 is $100. This means that Associated Enterprise 2 resells the bicycle to Independent Enterprise for $100. If we assume that an arm’s length gross profit margin that Associated Enterprise 2 should earn is 25%, Associated Enterprise 2 should cover its SG&A expenses and make an appropriate profit with this 25% gross margin. The resulting transfer price between Associated Enterprise 1 and Associated Enterprise 2 (i.e. the cost of goods sold of Associated Enterprise 2) is $75 (i.e. $100 x (1-0.25).

B. Other approaches are possible. For example, if the associated enterprise acts as a sales agent that does not take title to the goods, it is possible to use the commission earned by the sales agent (represented as a percentage of the uncontrolled sales price of the goods concerned) as the comparable gross profit margin. The resale price margin for a reseller should always be determined by taking into account the functions performed, assets used and risks assumed by the reseller.

B.3.2.7.            Arm’s Length Gross Profit Margin

B.            The financial ratio analyzed under the Resale Price Method is the gross profit margin. Gross profit is defined as net sales minus cost of goods sold. It is easiest to determine where the reseller does not add substantially to the value of the product. The net sales of a sales company are the sales revenue obtained by selling products to unrelated customers, while the cost of goods sold equals the cost of purchasing the goods sold plus certain additional non-operating costs. Thus, if we are determining the gross margin for products purchased from a related company, the cost of goods sold will include the transfer price paid to the related manufacturer.

B.            Accounting consistency is extremely important in applying the RPM. Gross profit margins will not be comparable if accounting principles and/or practices differ between the controlled transaction and the uncontrolled transaction. For example, the comparable distributors may differ from the related sales company in reporting certain costs (e.g. discounts, transportation costs, insurance and costs of performing the warranty function) as operating expenses or as cost of goods sold. Differences in inventory valuation methods will also affect the gross margins. It is thus important that the analysis does not compare “apples with oranges” but rather, “apples with apples”. Therefore, appropriate adjustments should be applied to the data used in computing the gross margin to make sure that “similar” gross margins are compared.

B.3.2.8.           Transactional Comparison versus Functional Comparison

B.            The arm’s length price or margin can result from looking at comparable functionality (distributors of broadly similar types of product) or from making a transactional comparison by looking at each transaction the tested party engages in involving comparable products (i.e. sales of different types of bicycles).

B.            The arm’s length (range of) gross profit margin(s) to be earned by the sales company in the controlled transaction can therefore be determined in the following two ...