Strategizing International Tax Best Practices – by Keith Brockman

As the OECD is developing new guidelines to address transfer pricing (TP) risk, including the Country-by-Country (CbC) template, a lack of emphasis resides in the idea that every tax audit involving cross-border issues should require an opening discussion between the taxpayer and the tax authorities of the business, its relevance in that jurisdiction apart from its global business, the functions, assets and risks for that jurisdiction upon which the arm’s length principle is based, and the rationale for the level of income/loss generated during the audit years.

Transfer pricing documentation reports, including a local country report, may be available for review.  However, such reports may not simply convey the business rationale easily to form an accurate understanding prior to embarking upon a leap into technicalities and assumptions to initiate data requests and move forward on assumptions prematurely.  For example, a company investing in a less developed country seeking long-term growth based on the domestic opportunity may have start-up losses, although such losses may be significantly offset by potential future income.

The open audit discussion should be developed into a Best Practice Ways of Working framework which is discussed and signed by the taxpayer and tax authorities.  This framework should be a simple and practical document addressing open dialogue, preliminary discussion of issues designed to produce the relevant documentation, timelines for requesting and providing information and a continuing dialogue discussing the status of open issues and requests, with a mutual effort to resolve issues efficiently.

To the extent this simple idea could be integrated consistently and uniformly around the world, it is a challenge worth addressing.

The Best Practice Ways of Working Framework could be a very effective and practical tool, supplementing the technical and legal requirements for transfer pricing.

Today’s tax climate, OECD Base Erosion & Profit Shifting (BEPS) Action Plans, 2014 changes to the OECD Model Tax Convention re: “Beneficial Ownership” (refer to 22 July 2014 post), and General Anti-Abuse Rules (GAAR) all focus on increased substance of activities in an entity, versus pure legal form, to derive relevant treaty benefits.

A recent Austrian Administrative High Court decision (VwGH 26/6/2014, 2011/15/0080-13) focused on the EU Parent-Subsidiary Directive (PSD) re: “directive shopping.”  There were dividend distributions from an Austrian company to a pure holding company in Cyprus with no people or physical assets. Withholding tax was paid by the Austrian company, with a refund claimed by the Cypriot company in accordance with the EU PSD.  (Note the Cypriot company had a Russian shareholder, for which direct distributions from Austria to Russia would not have the benefit of the EU PSD.)

The High Court, confirming the tax authority’s view, stated the Cypriot company structure was abusive.  Accordingly, the withholding tax refund application of the Cypriot company was denied.

The substance vs. form application of the case highlights the potential withholding tax issues for a pure holding company located in a tax favorable jurisdiction.  Thus, all holding company structures should be reviewed under current law, and most importantly with respect to future international tax changes focusing on the proper substance to receive treaty benefits.

EU State Aid: A primer

PwC has provided an outline of EU State Aid requirements.  This comprehensive and succinct summary provides context for the  OECD BEPS provisions, tax arrangements that are considered illegal State Aid, and a valuable reference for potential EU State Aid cases in the foreseeable future.  A link to the outline is provided for reference:

http://www.pwc.com/en_GX/gx/tax/newsletters/tax-policy-bulletin/assets/pwc-eu-fiscal-state-aid.pdf

This information provides a valuable context against which the recent inquiries have been focused, as well as potential areas (including OECD BEPS Actions) that may constitute illegal State Aid in the future.  All MNE’s with European operations should be familiar with these legal provisions and the continuing importance that they have in today’s rapidly changing international tax environment.

Most MNE’s have an internal audit department, although the extent to which this audit team minimizes tax risks and enhances tax governance is generally not identified.

New out of the box ideas may be necessary for the internal audit function to address the evolution of transfer pricing and new challenges that will surely bring additional appeals and risks of double taxation.  

With the advent of the OECD’s BEPS Action Plans, parallel UN actions, increased tax audits and tax risks re: transfer pricing documentation, there has not been a significant increase in the role of internal audit teams to monitor and minimize potential tax risks, including double taxation. There is also a resource limitation on tax professionals, thus internal audit may provide a win-win opportunity.  The near future may include the addition of an internal tax audit team and/or adding tax professionals to the team.

Best Practice ideas for internal audit collaboration:

  • Tax topic training, including OECD’s BEPS actions
  • Tax risk awareness training, including Permanent Establishment (PE) and transfer pricing methodologies
  • Rotation of tax professionals in the internal audit team
  • Knowledge of tax policies, including intercompany service agreements and internal governance
  • Issues / trends in tax audits and hot topics
  • Treasury / financing issues subject to internal governance

The ideas are meant to promote thought and consideration for Best Practices.

Loyens & Loeff provides a comprehensive and concise summary of the focus for the OECD BEPS Action 5, Countering Harmful Tax Practices.  One of the priorities for this action is to improve transparency, with the EU Directive on Cooperation as a possible tool to carry out this objective.  The Council Directive on administrative cooperation is highlighted to draw attention to its possible role in the OECD BEPS drama.  An excerpt from their summary, and a link to their article, are provided for reference:

“Another priority under Action 5 is to improve transparency, including compulsory spontaneous exchange on rulings related to preferential regimes. To that extent the FHTP has put together a framework that describes in which situations, which information on which rulings should be exchanged between which countries. The Report mentions that the information exchange may take place on the basis of existing legal instruments, such as bilateral information exchange instruments, the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters and the EU Directive on cooperation in the field of taxation. However, it remains unclear on what legal basis countries would have the obligation to exchange this specific information and how confidentiality can be guaranteed. Furthermore, it can be expected that such obligation may conflict with domestic legal requirements. The Report is also silent on how this should be handled.”

http://www.loyensloeff.com/nl-NL/Documents/Action%205%20–%20Countering%20Harmful%20Tax%20Practices%20More%20Effectively.pdf?_cldee=ZXZlbnRzQGxveWVuc2xvZWZmLmNvbQ%3D%3D&urlid=5

Council Directive 2011/16/EU of 15 February 2011 on administrative cooperation in the field of taxation, is applicable as of 1 January 2013 and is repealing the Directive 77/799/EES and lays down clearer and more precise rules governing administrative cooperation, in order to establish a wider scope of administrative cooperation between Member States.

The opportunity for OECD to successfully carry out is Action Plans relies on a legal instrument that provides automatic and timely implementation by the relevant countries.  A forthcoming multilateral instrument may also be a possible tool to accomplish its objective.  It is critical to monitor the implementation of this objective, as countries may comply completely, partially or not at all.  Therein lies the complexity.

The OECD has published comments in response to its Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Action Plan 11, methodologies for collecting and analyzing BEPS data. A link to the comments is attached for reference:

http://www.oecd.org/ctp/tax-policy/comments-action-11-establishing-methodologies.pdf

The comments are valuable in assessing current perceptions and trends by interested parties, none of which are multinationals. It is interesting to read comments re: public disclosure of country by country reporting information, etc. and the transparency which today’s environment is demanding. The rapid change and volatility of international tax rules, especially transfer pricing, are leading to a tsunami effect, with the roar of its crashing waves extending far out into the foreseeable future.

KPMG’s Euro Tax Flash provides a summary of the European Commission’s formal state aid investigations into tax rulings granted by Ireland (Apple) and Luxembourg (Fiat).  This round of investigations follows three investigations, announced 11 June 2014, into alleged state aid granted by Ireland (Apple), Luxembourg (Fiat) and the Netherlands (Starbucks) via transfer pricing rulings.

The procedure is now open for interested parties, including Member States to provide comments to the Commission.

The KPMG Euro Tax Flash and preliminary decisions (English version for Ireland, French version for Luxembourg) are attached for reference:

https://www.kpmg.com/Global/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/taxnewsflash/Documents/tp-eu-sept30-2014.pdf

http://ec.europa.eu/competition/state_aid/cases/253200/253200_1582634_87_2.pdf

http://ec.europa.eu/competition/state_aid/cases/253203/253203_1582635_49_2.pdf

Key observations:

  • State Aid – Apple; Section 3.1, par. 46: Any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favoring certain undertakings or the provision of certain goods shall be incompatible with the common market, insofar as it affects trade between Member States.
  • Qualification as state aid – Apple; Section 3.1, par. 47:  The following cumulative conditions must be met: (i) the measure must be imputable to the State and financed through State resources; (ii) it must confer an advantage on its recipient; (iii) that advantage must be selective; and (iv) the measure must distort or threaten to distort competition and have the potential to affect trade between Member States.
  • Arm’s length pricing – Apple; Section 3.1, par. 55: The Court of Justice has confirmed that if the method of taxation for intra-group transfers does not comply with the arm’s length principle, and leads to a taxable base inferior to the one which would result from a correct implementation of that principle, it provides a selective advantage to the company concerned.
  • OECD Guidelines – Apple; Section 3.1, par. 56: The OECD Guidelines are a reference document recommending methods for approximating an arm’s length pricing outcome and have been retained as appropriate guidance for this purpose in previous Commission decisions.

These formal rulings and comments by interested parties should be followed closely, especially in today’s challenging international tax environment.

EU case law and European Commission reviews have a significant impact upon the new international tax principles being established by the OECD and EU.  For example, the general anti-abuse rule (GAAR) provision in the Proposal for the 2014 EU Parent-Subsidiary was ultimately not included in the final version of the 2014 Directive, one reason being that the requirements exceeded the precedents of EU case law and would not be ultimately sustained.

To the extent that new OECD guidelines provide an alternative, or exceptions, to the arm’s length principle, it should have a direct impact upon the precedence for reliance by the European Commission re: transfer pricing issues.

 

 

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