The United Nations Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing: a bluffer’s guide

Logo of the United Nations

Logo of the United Nations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week saw the official launch of a 495-page document by the United Nations tax committee, its new Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing for Developing Countries [pdf]. The final product has been four years in the making and is an impressive, introductory-level guide to transfer pricing. So definitely worth dipping in and out of if you’ve never quite got your head round exactly how international rules divide up the tax base of a multinational company.

Because of its length, few people outside those who follow the UN committee in depth have really understood what the manual is about, and its implications for the international politics of taxation. So here’s a crib sheet on some of its more controversial aspects.

1. The manual is hardly the product of a group of tax mavericks

The subgroup responsible for drafting the manual includes two members of the OECD’s Working Party 6, the technical group responsible for its transfer pricing guidelines – indeed the subgroup’s Norwegian chair is also a bureau member of WP6 – as well as the head of the transfer pricing unit of the OECD secretariat. The subgroup had several private sector representatives, including people from Ernst & Young and Baker & Mackenzie, who did large amounts of drafting, and Shell’s global transfer pricing manager.

This was balanced by government and private sector representatives from developing countries (many of whose countries also have the status of observing participants over at WP6). I understand that there were some quite heated exchanges at times, and the group certainly did include some considerations unlikely to have been given much airtime at the OECD.

2. The main body of the manual is consistent with the OECD guidelines

To set the context, we need to understand the UN committee’s position on the OECD transfer pricing guidelines. The 2001 edition of the UN model convention explicitly endorsed the arm’s length principle, and recommended that countries implement it using the methods set out in the OECD guidelines:

the Contracting States will follow the OECD principles which are set out in the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines. These conclusions represent internationally agreed principles and the Group of Experts recommend[s] that the Guidelines should be followed for the application of the arm’s-length principle which underlies the article.

The Manual defines the arm’s length principle as, “an international standard that compares the transfer prices charged between related entities with the price of similar transactions carried out between independent entities at arm’s length.”

The 2012 update to the UN model convention also endorses the arm’s length principle, but it is more circumspect about the OECD guidelines. This is because in 2011, when the updated model convention was agreed, the Brazilian, Indian and Chinese committee members recorded a reservation to the paragraph of the 2001 model quoted above. (The model conventions are the views of the individual members of the committee at the time they are agreed). Rather than attempting to find a consensus statement for the new model convention, the committee agreed to quote what their predecessors had said in 2001, and then add the following text:

The views expressed by the former Group of Experts have not yet been considered fully by the Committee of Experts, as indicated in the records of its annual sessions.

So we can see that the UN committee’s position on the role of the OECD’s transfer pricing guidelines has changed over the course of this session (though it continues to endorse the arm’s length principle). Depending on how this evolution continues under the new committee membership, future versions of the transfer pricing manual might have the scope to carve out a more distinctive methodology for developing countries. But that was ruled out early on for this manual. The subcommittee concluded, as its chair reported back to the full committee in 2010, that its mandate required that the Manual maintain “consistency” with the OECD guidelines, which the UN model at that time – the old version – recommended that countries follow.

3. Consistent, but not identical

The transfer pricing subcommittee’s mandate, from 2009, embodies the balancing act that anyone working on transfer pricing in developing countries faced. The subcommittee must ensure:

a) That it reflects the operation of Article 9 of the United Nations Model Convention, and the Arms Length Principle embodied in it, and is consistent with relevant Commentaries of the U.N. Model.

b) That it reflects the realities for developing countries, at their relevant stages of capacity development.

c) That special attention should be paid to the experience of other developing countries.

An earlier proposed outline for the manual had included among subheadings on transfer pricing methods ‘current’ and ‘alternatives’. Under the latter, a single bullet point says. “Global Formulary Apportionment – an introduction (alternative method for applying the ALS or alternative to the ALS?).” This was effectively ruled out by the mandate, but there was still a question about how to balance “consistency” with the OECD guidelines on the one hand with “reflecting the realities for developing countries” on the other.

The UN committee continued to discuss ‘simplifications’ to the methods included in the OECD’s transfer pricing guidelines. For example, in 2010:

The discussions of the group of experts, however, included an exchange of views at some length regarding the use of presumptive arm’s length margins, safe harbours and formulas when applying arm’s length pricing profit methods….[Monique van Herksen of Ernst & Young] explained the potential benefit to developing country tax administrations in making use of presumptive margins and safe harbours in relevant circumstances. Additionally, she mentioned as an idea to be considered that the United Nations, in an appropriate form, might issue temporary industry margins based on research and statistics to be used by taxpayers and tax administrations as arm’s length presumptive benchmarks.

The final manual outlines these kinds of simplifications (although not van Herksen’s final proposal quoted above) but it doesn’t propose them as alternatives to the OECD guidelines – instead it notes that the latter are currently being updated to endorse the use of safe harbours. In the future, as both the OECD and UN consider how developing countries can simplify the implementation of the arm’s length principle, it will be interesting to watch the interplay between their respective documents.

4. The manual sets out the contours of current transfer pricing debates, and business is not happy

As I blogged at the time, the US Council for International Business wrote a rather angry letter [pdf] to the committee ahead of its final discussion of the manual last year. One section that it was unhappy about was 9.4.2, which according to USCIB, “ought to be deleted in its entirety. In our view, the only purpose of this section is to undercut the value of the OECD [transfer pricing guidelines] as the global standard in the area of transfer pricing.”

That section is still in the final version, and it still notes that, “the interpretation provided by the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines may not be fully consistent with the policy positions of all developing countries.” It is summed up as follows:

developing countries may wish to consider the relevance of the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines, along with the growing body of UN guidance and other available sources, when establishing their own domestic and cross-border policies on transfer pricing.

It’s hard to view this as a dramatic policy statement by the Committee. Rather, it’s an accurate description of the current state of affairs, and the concluding recommendation is made in the context of dispute avoidance, for which developing countries need to consider the actual practices of countries with which they may get into a dispute.

5. Chapter 10 is probably the manual’s biggest contribution

During 2011, as the manual developed, its outline started to include a chapter 6, on ‘The [Possible] Use of Fixed Margins’, otherwise known as ‘the Brazil chapter’. Although it existed in draft form, this chapter – a description of the Brazilian approach to transfer pricing, which is not consistent with the OECD guidelines – was never published on the UN website. By 2012, it had disappeared from the manual, replaced instead by a chapter 10, which unlike the rest of the manual “does not reflect a consistent or consensus view of the Subcommittee.”

I’ve heard that the proposed ‘Brazilian chapter’ was the subject of a lot of controversy, as well as variously that it was opposed by OECD members, lobbied against by the OECD secretariat, and even fought by other large developing countries, who didn’t see why Brazil should get a chapter all of its own. Certainly it seems inconsistent with the way the subgroup interpreted its mandate (see 2 above).

Whoever opposed the Brazilian chapter may instead have created a monster in chapter 10. It’s probably the only detailed description of Brazil, China, India and South Africa’s approach to transfer pricing, both how they follow and how they differ from the OECD methods. Significantly, these contributions are expressed not just in terms of the legal and administrative realities, but also the policy objectives underlying them.

It seems unlikely that smaller developing countries will read this chapter and try to adopt the methodologies it outlines. Rather, chapter 10 functions as a comprehensive critique of the OECD guidelines – almost a manifesto – endorsed and in most cases written by tax officials from some of the world’s most powerful economies. As a focal point in transfer pricing discussions, it is politically very significant.

The nature of this critique is the subject of a separate blog.

6. The political significance of the manual depends on what happens next

The UN manual contains a lot of very useful text that, on a technical level, will be very useful for developing countries. The current committee wants the manual to develop in the future, and it seems clear that the UN’s arrival on the transfer pricing scene is a fundamental change in international tax governance.

The UN Manual is not an alternative to the OECD Guidelines. Yet. It could evolve in that direction, creating a counterweight in the same mould as its model treaty, but that depends on what the new committee decides to do with it.

It also depends on two more things. First, on the unresolved discussion concerning the UN model convention’s position towards the OECD guidelines. Further work on the UN manual will inevitably be framed in terms of the model convention, which is the committee’s signature document, so the tension between OECD members and larger developing countries on this point is significant.

Second, it depends on the OECD, which has been working hard to reach out to developing countries [pdf]. Institutionally, it has brought many of them into its new Global Forum on Transfer Pricing, several are observers on its standards-setting committees, and there’s of course its Tax and Development Task Force. In terms of content, its project on transfer pricing ‘simplification’ has already incorporate some of the measures mentioned in the UN manual, and may even go further. So the OECD may succeed in creating a broad enough tent to regain its UN endorsement. It’s hard to see, though, how Chinese and Indian measures, which place them at odds with OECD countries, could be incorporated by the OECD itself.

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3 thoughts on “The United Nations Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing: a bluffer’s guide

  1. A couple of comments, Martin. The USCIB also objected to the inclusion in para.8.6.9.1 of the recommendation that among the information needed for an audit is the TNC’s group consolidated accounts. That is still there (though a typo has crept in). It is also in the recent OECD Transfer Pricing Risk Assessment report. This strengthens our call for CaCbCR – Combined and Country by Country Reporting, which is an important step towards unitary taxation.

    Secondly, I heard that the TP Working Group received a submission by an Indian expert proposing that it should look at Unitary Taxation. This was ruled to be outside the terms of reference — of that particular exercise. I’m willing to wager that instead of continuing to try to patch up the separate enterprise arm’s length system, the UN committee will within the next 3 years consider a serious study of UT.

    • Hi Sol, that’s interesting. I didn’t included in either post, but I also noted that the Chinese section in chapter 10 does appear to stray from the separate entity approach. It says “the Chinese tax administration takes the view that when a group has multiple single function entities, they may have to be taken into consideration as a whole in order to properly determine the return the group companies should earn in China. Similarly, an entity with multiple functions may have to be reviewed in its entirety in order to properly determine its returns.”

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