One of the most common questions we at FJV receive from our small business clients is what is transfer pricing and why must we address it now? Many clients – and some practitioners – seek an answer but are overwhelmed by the complex and conflicting information generally available.
If your company plans to expand business operations into the U.S. or expand their U.S. operations into another country at least a basic understanding of transfer pricing is required. Once there is a basic understanding, one can better comply with the legally mandated transfer pricing rules and then create a strategic pricing plan.
To best explain, let’s discuss transfer pricing basics, pricing methods, and documentation requirements.
Transfer Pricing Basics
A “transfer price” is the price at which related companies located in different countries buy and sell goods and services to each other. This is very important to each country’s taxing authority as each country wants to tax a share of these worldwide profits. “Transfer pricing” is generally defined as the legal mechanism that allocates the profit from that related party sale between the competing tax jurisdictions without creating double taxation. This mechanism, as outlined in a variety of laws around the world, allocates global supply chain profits based upon the functions and risks of the related parties. The party which performs the most important and costly functions, e.g., design and manufacturing, and takes the greatest risk, e.g., capital investment and customer credit risks, is entitled to the greater profit.
For example, let’s assume a U.S. entity manufactures medical equipment and sells it to a related party located in Germany. The German entity then resells the equipment to its customers within Germany. The financial elements here are as follows:
- The medical equipment is manufactured in the U.S. at a cost of $10,000.
- The parent sells this equipment to its German relative for $17,000 realizing a taxable profit in the U.S. of $7,000.
- The German entity then resells this same equipment to an unrelated German customer for $20,000 thus realizing a taxable German profit of $3,000.
- The total taxable profit for the entire global supply chain is $10,000.
How can the U.S. entity justify receiving 70% of the taxable profits, while the German entity only 30%? In our example, the U.S. entity has performed the costly research, design, and manufacturing functions for the medical equipment. The German subsidiary is only involved in the local German marketing and distribution of the product which requires little capital or investment. Thus, the U.S. entity has performed the greater functions and taken the greater risk which legally entitles them to the greater profit.
This profit split may be challenged by either the U.S. or German tax authorities using their own local transfer pricing laws. However, almost every country, including the U.S. and Germany, requires that each related taxpayer perform and document a transfer pricing analysis of their taxable profit allocation with related parties. No exceptions.
Transfer Pricing Methods
The IRS first enacted rules back in 1928 to address intercompany profit allocations that have evolved into present-day IRC Code §482. These rules actually empower the IRS to reallocate income or deductions between related parties to prevent tax evasion. If the taxpayer doesn’t perform a properly documented allocation or get it right the IRS will do it for them. Not a good place to be for sure.
IRC Code §482 requires taxpayers to create and document a transfer pricing policy that chooses the best method to justify the transfer price of goods and services. The IRS allows various methods for various types of transactions. Transfers of heavy equipment, software, and consulting services are all sufficiently different that different pricing methods are required.
One of the most common pricing methods – and the one most preferred by the IRS and other taxing authorities – is the Comparable Uncontrolled Price (“CUP”) methodology. In our example, let’s assume our U.S. entity also sells the same type of medical equipment to unrelated Chinese and Australian customers for more than it sells to the German related party. The IRS may – and probably will – argue that the U.S. entity is not charging Germany enough and a greater U.S. taxable profit should be reported. Alternatively, if the U.S. entity sells the medical equipment to all three customers, both related an unrelated, for the same price it could justify the intercompany transfer price between the related U.S. and German entities as an “arm’s-length” price.
IRC Code §482 provides other methods besides the CUP to be used for transfer pricing of goods and services. These methods include the Cost Plus method, the Resale Price method, the Comparable Profits method, and the Profit Split method. Taxpayers can even use an unspecified method if they can support it. Taxpayers must be careful to analyze each of those methods separately and select the “best method” for that particular transaction in order to comply with IRC Code §482.
Documentation Requirements & Penalties
One very important and often overlooked rule is that taxpayers are required to prepare and maintain contemporaneous documentation that explains in a very detailed and technical manner their transfer pricing methodologies. “Contemporaneous” means this documentation must be compiled at the same time their U.S. tax return is filed. If the IRS requests this documentation, the taxpayer must produce it within 30 days of an IRS request. If the taxpayer fails to do so, two very bad things can happen. First, as noted above, the IRS will go ahead and allocate the related party profits as they see fit. Second, the taxpayer will be subject to the documentation penalty provisions of IRC Code §6662.
If the IRS makes a transfer pricing adjustment resulting in an underpayment of tax and the documentation requirement was not met, IRC Code §6662 permits IRS to impose a 20% or 40% percent non-deductible penalty. The 20% penalty applies if the transfer price adjustment exceeds the lesser of $5 million or 10% of the taxpayer’s gross receipts. If the transfer price adjustment exceeds the lesser of $20 million or 20% of the taxpayer’s gross receipts the IRS may impose a 40% penalty on the adjustment.
Besides proper transfer pricing documentation, U.S. taxpayers must comply with other important requirements including:
- U.S. taxpayers who have related party transactions with their subsidiaries located outside of the U.S. must report these transactions on Form 5471.
- U.S. taxpayers who have related party transactions with their foreign owners and their related parties must report these transactions on Form 5472.
- If the related party sale involves a customs or duty filing, the price on the filing must be the same as that reported in the transfer pricing documentation and the Form 5471 or 5572. The failure to “harmonize” these filings can lead to additional penalties.
These are very harsh penalties that are often incurred by U.S. taxpayers who do not perform written transfer pricing studies to properly allocate or report related party profits. The problem is there is really no way around them for small taxpayers. Small taxpayers around the world have long called for exemptions from transfer pricing reporting but there is no significant relief to date.
Transfer pricing is a complicated issue that must be addressed proactively. If properly addressed in a timely manner, transfer pricing can be addressed at a reasonable cost. If not, the penalties kick in and the cost of these penalties coupled with the legal and professional fees of a transfer pricing conflict with any tax authority can be very high.
Our advice to any client with related party transactions that cross a foreign border is to proactively address their transfer pricing issues in a timely manner. Whether they sell tangible property, services, or sell or license intangible property, our advice is the same. At the end of the day, it saves our clients time and money and brings them fully into compliance with the law.
Frank J. Vari, JD, MTax, CPA is the practice leader of FJV Tax which is a CPA firm specializing in complex international and U.S. tax planning. FJV Tax has offices in Wellesley and Boston. The author can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone at 617-770-7286/800-685-2324. You can learn more about FJV Tax at fjvtax.com.