Is transfer pricing broken? Does the IRS/Congress need to adopt a new model to tax U.S. Multinational Corporations’ income earned worldwide?

Through this Blog, I have previously written about how US Multinational Corporations (USMNCs) have routinely utilized “tricks of the trade” (Transfer Pricing, Inversions and Earnings Striping) to minimize their U.S. tax liabilities.  I have also suggested some changes to the existing system (i.e., expatriation tax etc.)

Perhaps change is on the horizon.  In one of the keynote addresses at the 16th Annual Global Transfer Pricing Forum held in New York (September 22-23, 2016), Professor Edward Kleinbard (USC Gould School of Law, and the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation), advocates for “The End of Transfer Pricing”.  See the Presentation slides here.

Professor Kleinbard begins his presentation by discussing the Apple “facts” as examined by the EU Commission in the recent Irish state aid case.  He highlights the following facts:

  • APPLE had $115 billion of income over a 10 year period;
  • APPLE paid Ireland only .05% per year during the same period;
  • APPLE paid other EU countries roughly $385 million in taxes over the same period;
  • APPLE’s effective tax rate was 3.5% not the statutory rate of 35%.
  • APPLE had pre-tax profits of $91.5 billion. 

Professor Kleinbard concludes that the arm’s length standard is no longer viable if APPLE can receive such beneficial treatment through its subsidiaries in Ireland.

Professor Kleinbard then discusses how the world is aware of the abusive nature of transfer pricing and that progressing with the fiction of transfer pricing and the arm’s length model is untenable, specifically, he cites the following examples:

Because of this pushback, Professor Kleinbard advocates for a change to the existing system.

More specifically, he advocates for the following changes to the Corporate tax rate:

  1. Statutory Rate reduced to 25%;
  2. Repealing Section 199 (deduction for income attributable to domestic production activities;
  3. Repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT;
  4. Destination Based Cash Flow Tax

He states that by reducing the corporate rate to 25% will eliminate the need for transfer pricing games, because US tax rate will be in the middle of the pack, and playing games will be unnecessary. 

Note: Professor Kleinbard has stated, “Transfer pricing is dead” since 2008.  See this Tax Analyst Article about his debate with Willard B. Taylor of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP at the International Tax Institute.

To Clarify, Professor Kleinbard actually stated that Transfer Pricing enforcement has been dead since 2007.  See this article by Michigan Law Professor Reuven S. Avi-Yonah.  Professor Avi-Yonah proposes three different approaches for Congress to revitalize transfer pricing enforcement:

  • adopting a unitary taxation regime;
  • ending deferral; and
  • adopting anti base erosion measures.

Unitary Taxation Regime:  This proposal suggests that Congress can adopt a unitary tax system, namely, treating each USMNCs as a single unit and disregarding the “formal distinctions” among the subsidiary corporations.  The advantages are: 1) a better model for taxing USMNCs because of the way they currently operate; and 2) the unitary tax applies the same treatment to all USMNCs and does not depend on the location of the parent corporation.

Professor Avi-Yonah believes that this is the best solution, but pragmatically speaking will be difficult to achieve.

Abolishing Deferral:  This proposal proposes to prevent USMNC from parking profits offshore (something subpart F of the Internal Revenue Code was originally designed to accomplish, but has failed to do so).

Professor Avi-Yonah believes this is a good approach, but that it will require countries to adopt this goal, which may be difficult to achieve.

Adopting Anti-Base Erosion Measures:  This proposal suggests limiting deductible payments to related foreign parties, including cost of goods sold, interest and royalties.

Professor Avi-Yonah believes adopting this proposal in conjunction with abolishing deferrals will eliminate the impetus to undertake transfer pricing by USMNCs.

Finally Professor Avi-Yonah advocates for the adoption of a mixture of these measures, similar to Senator Baucus’ proposal with option Y.  See analysis of Senator Baucus’ proposals here. (NOTE: Senator Baucus is now the U.S. Ambassador to China).  Under Option Y, income from foreign sales would be taxed at 80% of the US rate with a credit for foreign taxes paid.  This would ensure tax would be geared toward the ultimate destination of the sale of the goods (i.e. taxing where the goods are ultimately sold, or similar to Kleinbard’s destination cash flow tax.)

It will be interesting to see if any of these proposals will gain traction with the pending presidential election and with one of the key backers now a U.S. ambassador to China. 

If you have specific and credible information of a company undertaking transfer pricing and want to report the company for shifting its profits offshore, CONTACT US, to discuss your tax whistleblower claim.  The IRS is paying an award (between 15-30% of the collected taxes, interest, penalties, and additional amounts) for information it utilizes in adjusting a corporation’s income tax due to information provided by a whistleblower.

Inversions, Earnings Stripping and Transfer Pricing, the triumvirate of U.S. companies avoiding U.S. taxation.

As previously noted on this blog, the American public is now aware of U.S. companies inverting to a foreign jurisdiction to reduce or eliminate its U.S. income tax liabilities.  The publicity (see here for outrage over Pfizer’s inversion attempt in 2014 and response by the President and the Treasury’s new Regulations attempting to curtail inversions here) that inversions have received fail to paint a complete picture of the ability of U.S. corporations and former U.S. corporation from avoiding U.S. taxation.

As found here, Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, outlines in his N.Y. Times article the next step to maximize the inversion by the former U.S. corporation is to strip the earnings from its now U.S. subsidiary.  As noted by Professor Solomon, the process starts by having the inverted offshore parent company make loans to its now U.S. subsidiary to pay for its operations in the U.S.  The loans would generate interest payments to the offshore parent company, which can be deducted by the U.S. subsidiary to offset the earnings (otherwise taxable) in the U.S. 

Professor Solomon also references the studies of inverted companies and their earnings stripping efforts in 2004 (See National Tax Journal 2004 Article, “Effective Tax Rate Changes and Earnings Stripping Following Corporate Inversion”) and the Treasury’s 2007 article regarding the same.  Professor Solomon also notes that while Treasury has attempted to minimize the inversions, there is little being done to stop earnings stripping.  Finally Professor Solomon suggests that the Treasury and Congress adopt a radical approach to prevent earnings stripping, namely Professor Stephen Shay’s article, which would convert the interest payments to the foreign parent to taxable dividends instead of interest income.

While these articles address the effect of inversions and continued expansion of the Tax Gap (See IRS’s website describing the Tax Gap at $2 trillion annually) the current focus on inversions and earnings stripping fail to address how U.S. companies are currently reducing their tax liabilities through transfer pricing.  For a brief description of transfer pricing, see Bloomberg articles here and here.

As documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (“PSI”) (See Part 1 (Microsoft and HP) of the PSI hearing on Offshore Profit Shifting and U.S. Code; or Part 2 (Apple), U.S. Multi-National Corporations (“MNC”) have aggressively taken advantage of Transfer Pricing (Section 482) and Subpart F to shift profits to its low tax offshore subsidiaries.  PSI recommends the following changes to address Transfer Pricing abuses including the following: 1. Revise Sections 482 and 956; 2. Revise APB 23 to minimize MNC’s ability to manipulate the earnings reports to enable transfer pricing; and 3. Have IRS utilize its anti-abuse powers to stop transfer pricing.  See PSI’s recommendations.

Despite these recommendations, Congress and the IRS have yet to successfully limit or prohibit U.S. MNC from stripping the earnings from U.S. companies by shifting the profits offshore through transfer pricing.  However, IRS has aggressively pursued MNC on transfer pricing issues regarding cost sharing arrangements between the parent and subsidiary corporations of the MNCs.  See International Tax Review’s summaries of IRS transfer pricing cases.  For example, see the following active IRS cases on transfer pricing issues:

  1. Microsoft: IRS is challenging Microsoft’s cost sharing buy-in payment arrangement between Microsoft and its Bermudian Affiliate and its Puerto Rican Affiliate (see Microsoft Corporation vs. Internal Revenue Service, 15-cv-00850, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington);
  2. Amazon: IRS is challenging Amazon’s cost sharing agreement between Amazon and its Luxembourg subsidiary (see, Inc. v. Comm’r, T.C. Docket 31197-12);
  3. Zimmer: IRS is making 482 adjustments between Zimmer and its Dutch subsidiary (see Zimmer Holdings, Inc. v. Comm’r, T.C. Docket 19073-14); and
  4. Medtronic: IRS is challenging Medtronic’s value of intangibles transferred between Medtronic and its Puerto Rican subsidiary (See Medtronic v. Comm’r, T.C. Docket 6944-11)

If you feel strongly about the injustice of transfer pricing and have specific/credible information about corporations avoiding the payment of tax through transfer pricing, you can get involved in preventing/limiting the tax avoidance by filing an IRS tax whistleblower claim.  The IRS pays an award between 15% to 30% of the tax collected to a whistleblower with specific and credible information about a corporate taxpayer’s avoidance of tax (through transfer pricing, or other methods).   Contact us if you want to file a tax whistleblower claim.

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