This Report was approved by the Committee on Fiscal Affairs on 26 April 2013 and by the OECD Council on 16 May 2013. The Recommendation of the Council on the Determination of Transfer Pricing between Associated Enterprises [C(95)126/FINAL] was amended on 16 May 2013 to take account of the revision of the attached report on safe harbours, which replaced Section E on safe harbours in Chapter IV of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and Tax Administrations.
REVISED SECTION E ON SAFE HARBOURS
IN CHAPTER IV OF THE TRANSFER PRICING GUIDELINES
The existing language of Section E (paragraphs 4.93 through 4.122) would be removed and replaced with the following language. The enumeration of paragraphs of Section F would be adapted accordingly.
E. Safe harbours
4.93 Applying the arm’s length principle can be a resource-intensive process. It may impose a heavy administrative burden on taxpayers and tax administrations that can be exacerbated by both complex rules and resulting compliance demands. These facts have led OECD member countries to consider whether and when safe harbour rules would be appropriate in the transfer pricing area.
4.94 When these Guidelines were adopted in 1995, the view expressed regarding safe harbour rules was generally negative. It was suggested that while safe harbours could simplify transfer pricing compliance and administration, safe harbour rules may raise fundamental problems that could potentially have perverse effects on the pricing decisions of enterprises engaged in controlled transactions. It was suggested that unilateral safe harbours may have a negative impact on the tax revenues of the country implementing the safe harbour, as well as on the tax revenues of countries whose associated enterprises engage in controlled transactions with taxpayers electing a safe harbour. It was further suggested that safe harbours may not be compatible with the arm’s length principle. Therefore, it was concluded that transfer pricing safe harbours are not generally advisable, and consequently the use of safe harbours was not recommended.
4.95 Despite these generally negative conclusions, a number of countries have adopted safe harbour rules. Those rules have generally been applied to smaller taxpayers and/or less complex transactions. They are generally evaluated favourably by both tax administrations and taxpayers, who indicate that the benefits of safe harbours outweigh the related concerns when such rules are carefully targeted and prescribed and when efforts are made to avoid the problems that could arise from poorly considered safe harbour regimes.
4.96 The appropriateness of safe harbours can be expected to be most apparent when they are directed at taxpayers and/or transactions which involve low transfer pricing risks and when they are adopted on a bilateral or multilateral basis. It should be recognised that a safe harbour provision does not bind or limit in any way any tax administration other than the tax administration that has expressly adopted the safe harbour.
4.97 Although safe harbours primarily benefit taxpayers, by providing for a more optimal use of resources, they can benefit tax administrations as well. Tax administrations can shift audit and examination resources from smaller taxpayers and less complex transactions (which may typically be resolved in practice on a consistent basis as to both transfer pricing methodology and actual results) to more complex, higher-risk cases. At the same time, taxpayers can price eligible transactions and file their tax returns with more certainty and with lower compliance burdens. However, the design of safe harbours requires careful attention to concerns about the degree of approximation to arm’s length prices that would be permitted in determining transfer prices under safe harbour rules for eligible taxpayers, the potential for creating inappropriate tax planning opportunities including double non-taxation of income, equitable treatment of similarly situated taxpayers, and the potential for double taxation resulting from the possible incompatibility of the safe harbours with the arm’s length principle or with the practices of other countries.
4.98 The following discussion considers the benefits of, and concerns regarding, safe harbour provisions and provides guidance regarding the circumstances in which safe harbours may be applied in a transfer pricing system based on the arm’s length principle.
E.2 Definition and concept of safe harbours
4.99 Some of the difficulties that arise in applying the arm’s length principle may be avoided by providing circumstances in which eligible taxpayers may elect to follow a simple set of prescribed transfer pricing rules in connection with clearly and carefully defined transactions, or may be exempted from the application of the general transfer pricing rules. In the former case, prices established under such rules would be automatically accepted by the tax administrations that have expressly adopted such rules. These elective provisions are often referred to as “safe harbours”.
4.100 A safe harbour in a transfer pricing regime is a provision that applies to a defined category of taxpayers or transactions and that relieves eligible taxpayers from certain obligations otherwise imposed by a country’s general transfer pricing rules. A safe harbour substitutes simpler obligations for those under the general transfer pricing regime. Such a provision could, for example, allow taxpayers to establish transfer prices in a specific way, e.g. by applying a simplified transfer pricing approach provided by the tax administration. Alternatively, a safe harbour could exempt a defined category of taxpayers or transactions from the application of all or part of the general transfer pricing rules. Often, eligible taxpayers complying with the safe harbour provision will be relieved from burdensome compliance obligations, including some or all associated transfer pricing documentation requirements.
4.101 For purposes of the discussion in this Section, safe harbours do not include administrative simplification measures which do not directly involve determination of arm’s length prices, e.g. simplified, or exemption from, documentation requirements (in the absence of a pricing determination), and procedures whereby a tax administration and a taxpayer agree on transfer pricing in advance of the controlled transactions (advance pricing arrangements), which are discussed in Section F of this chapter. The discussion in this section also does not extend to tax provisions designed to prevent “excessive” debt in a foreign subsidiary (“thin capitalisation” rules).
4.102 Although they would not fully meet the foregoing description of a safe harbour, it may be the case that some countries adopt other administrative simplification measures that use presumptions to realise some of the benefits discussed in this Section. For example, a rebuttable presumption might be established under which a mandatory pricing target would be established by a tax authority, subject to a taxpayer’s right to demonstrate that its transfer price is consistent with the arm’s length principle. Under such a system, it would be essential that the taxpayer does not bear a higher burden to demonstrate its price is consistent with the arm’s length principle than it would if no such system were in place. In any such system, it would be essential to permit resolution of cases of double taxation arising from application of the mandatory presumption through the mutual agreement process.
E.3 Benefits of safe harbours
4.103 The basic benefits of safe harbours are as follows:
1. Simplifying compliance and reducing compliance costs for eligible taxpayers in determining and documenting appropriate conditions for qualifying controlled transactions;
2. Providing certainty to eligible taxpayers that the price charged or paid on qualifying controlled transactions will be accepted by the tax administrations that have adopted the safe harbour with a limited audit or without an audit beyond ensuring the taxpayer has met the eligibility conditions of, and complied with, the safe harbour provisions;
3. Permitting tax administrations to redirect their administrative resources from the examination of lower risk transactions to examinations of more complex or higher risk transactions and taxpayers.
E.3.1 Compliance relief
4.104 Application of the arm’s length principle may require collection and analysis of data that may be difficult or costly to obtain and/or evaluate. In certain cases, such compliance burdens may be disproportionate to the size of the taxpayer, its functions performed, and the transfer pricing risks inherent in its controlled transactions.
4.105 Properly designed safe harbours may significantly ease compliance burdens by eliminating data collection and associated documentation requirements in exchange for the taxpayer pricing qualifying transactions within the parameters set by the safe harbour. Especially in areas where transfer pricing risks are small, and the burden of compliance and documentation is disproportionate to the transfer pricing exposure, such a trade-off may be mutually advantageous to taxpayers and tax administrations. Under a safe harbour, taxpayers would be able to establish transfer prices which will not be challenged by tax administrations providing the safe harbour without being obligated to search for comparable transactions or expend resources to demonstrate transfer pricing compliance to such tax administrations.
4.106 Another advantage provided by a safe harbour is the certainty that the taxpayer’s transfer prices will be accepted by the tax administration providing the safe harbour, provided they have met the eligibility conditions of, and complied with, the safe harbour provisions. The tax administration would accept, with limited or no scrutiny, transfer prices within the safe harbour parameters. Taxpayers could be provided with relevant parameters which would provide a transfer price deemed appropriate by the tax administration for the qualifying transaction.
E.3.3 Administrative simplicity
4.107 A safe harbour would result in a degree of administrative simplicity for the tax administration. Although the eligibility of particular taxpayers or transactions for the safe harbour would need to be carefully evaluated, depending on the specific safe harbour provision, such evaluations would not necessarily have to be performed by auditors with transfer pricing expertise. Once eligibility for the safe harbour has been established, qualifying taxpayers would require minimal examination with respect to the transfer prices of controlled transactions qualifying for the safe harbour. This would enable tax administrations to secure tax revenues in low risk situations with a limited commitment of administrative resources and to concentrate their efforts on the examination of more complex or higher risk transactions and taxpayers. A safe harbour may also increase the level of compliance among small taxpayers that may otherwise believe their transfer pricing practices will escape scrutiny.
E.4 Concerns over safe harbours
4.108 The availability of safe harbours for a given category of taxpayers or transactions may have
adverse consequences. These concerns stem from the fact that:
E.4.1 Divergence from the arm’s length principle
4.109 Where a safe harbour provides a simplified transfer pricing approach, it may not correspond in all cases to the most appropriate method applicable to the facts and circumstances of the taxpayer under the general transfer pricing provisions. For example, a safe harbour might require the use of a particular method when the taxpayer could otherwise have determined that another method was the most appropriate method under the facts and circumstances. Such an occurrence could be considered as inconsistent with the arm’s length principle, which requires the use of the most appropriate method.
4.110 Safe harbours involve a trade-off between strict compliance with the arm’s length principle and administrability. They are not tailored to fit exactly the varying facts and circumstances of individual taxpayers and transactions. The degree of approximation of prices determined under the safe harbour with prices determined in accordance with the arm’s length principle could be improved by collecting, collating, and frequently updating a pool of information regarding prices and pricing developments in respect of the relevant types of transactions between uncontrolled parties of the relevant nature. However, such efforts to set safe harbour parameters accurately enough to satisfy the arm’s length principle could erode the administrative simplicity of the safe harbour.
4.111 Any potential disadvantages to taxpayers from safe harbours diverging from arm’s length pricing are avoided when taxpayers have the option to either elect the safe harbour or price transactions in accordance with the arm’s length principle. With such an approach, taxpayers that believe the safe harbour would require them to report an amount of income exceeding the arm’s length amount could apply the general transfer pricing rules. While such an approach can limit the divergence from arm’s length pricing under a safe harbour regime, it would also limit the administrative benefits of the safe harbour to the tax administration. Moreover, tax administrations would need to consider the potential loss of tax revenue from such an approach where taxpayers will pay tax only on the lesser of the safe harbour amount or the arm’s length amount. Countries may also be concerned over the ability of taxpayers to opt in and out of a safe harbour, depending on whether the use of the safe harbour is favourable to the taxpayer in a particular year. Countries may be able to gain greater comfort regarding this risk by controlling the conditions under which a taxpayer can be eligible for the safe harbour, for example by requiring taxpayers to notify the tax authority in advance of using the safe harbour or to commit to its use for a certain number of years.
E.4.2 Risk of double taxation, double non-taxation, and mutual agreement concerns
4.112 One major concern raised by a safe harbour is that it may increase the risk of double taxation. If a tax administration sets safe harbour parameters at levels either above or below arm’s length prices in order to increase reported profits in its country, it may induce taxpayers to modify the prices that they would otherwise have charged or paid to controlled parties, in order to avoid transfer pricing scrutiny in the safe harbour country. The concern of possible overstatement of taxable income in the country providing the safe harbour is greater where that country imposes significant penalties for understatement of tax or failure to meet documentation requirements, with the result that there may be added incentives to ensure that the transfer pricing is accepted in that country without further review.
4.113 If the safe harbour causes taxpayers to report income above arm’s length levels, it would work to the benefit of the tax administration providing the safe harbour, as more taxable income would be reported by such domestic taxpayers. On the other hand, the safe harbour may lead to less taxable income being reported in the tax jurisdiction of the foreign associated enterprise that is the other party to the transaction. The other tax administrations may then challenge prices derived from the application of a safe harbour, with the result that the taxpayer would face the prospect of double taxation. Accordingly, any administrative benefits gained by the tax administration of the safe harbour country would potentially be obtained at the expense of other countries which, in order to protect their own tax base, would have to determine systematically whether the prices or results permitted under the safe harbour are consistent with what would be obtained by the application of their own transfer pricing rules. The administrative burden saved by the country offering the safe harbour would therefore be shifted to the foreign jurisdictions.
4.114 In cases involving smaller taxpayers or less complex transactions, the benefits of safe harbours may outweigh the problems raised by such provisions. Provided the safe harbour is elective, taxpayers may consider that a moderate level of double taxation, if any arises because of the safe harbour, is an acceptable price to be paid in order to obtain relief from the necessity of complying with complex transfer pricing rules. One may argue that the taxpayer is capable of making its own decision in electing the safe harbour as to whether the possibility of double taxation is acceptable or not.
4.115 Where safe harbours are adopted unilaterally, care should be taken in setting safe harbour parameters to avoid double taxation, and the country adopting the safe harbour should generally be prepared to consider modification of the safe-harbour outcome in individual cases under mutual agreement procedures to mitigate the risk of double taxation. At a minimum, in order to ensure that taxpayers make decisions on a fully informed basis, the country offering the safe harbour would need to make it explicit in advance whether or not it would attempt to alleviate any eventual double taxation resulting from the use of the safe harbour. Obviously, if a safe harbour is not elective and if the country in question refuses to consider double tax relief, the risk of double taxation arising from the safe harbour would be unacceptably high and inconsistent with double tax relief provisions of treaties.
4.116 On the other hand, if a unilateral safe harbour permits taxpayers to report income below arm’s length levels in the country providing the safe harbour, taxpayers would have an incentive to elect application of the safe harbour. In such a case, there would be no assurance that the taxpayer would report income in other countries on a consistent basis or at levels above arm’s length levels based on the safe
harbour. Moreover it is unlikely that other tax administrations would have the authority to require that income be reported above arm’s length levels. While the burden of under-taxation in such situations would fall exclusively upon the country adopting the safe harbour provision, and should not adversely affect the ability of other countries to tax arm’s length amounts of income, double non-taxation would be unavoidable and could result in distortions of investment and trade.
4.117 It is important to observe that the problems of non-arm’s length results and potential double taxation and double non-taxation arising under safe harbours could be largely eliminated if safe harbours were adopted on a bilateral or multilateral basis by means of competent authority agreements between countries. Under such a procedure, two or more countries could, by agreement, define a category of taxpayers and/or transactions to which a safe harbour provision would apply and by agreement establish pricing parameters that would be accepted by each of the contracting countries if consistently applied in each of the countries. Such agreements could be published in advance and taxpayers could consistently report results in each of the affected countries in accordance with the agreement.
4.118 The rigor of having two or more countries with potentially divergent interests agree to such a safe harbour should serve to limit some of the arbitrariness that otherwise might characterise a unilateral safe harbour and would largely eliminate safe harbour-created double taxation and double non-taxation concerns. Particularly for some smaller taxpayers and/or less complex transactions, creation of bilateral or multilateral safe harbours by competent authority agreement may provide a worthwhile approach to transfer pricing simplification that would avoid some of the potential pitfalls of unilateral safe harbour regimes.
4.119 The Annex I to Chapter IV of these Guidelines contains sample memoranda of understanding that country competent authorities might use to establish bilateral or multilateral safe harbours in appropriate situations for common classes of transfer pricing cases. The use of these sample memoranda of understanding should not be considered as either mandatory or prescriptive in establishing bilateral or multilateral safe harbours. Rather, they are intended to provide a possible framework for adaptation to the particular needs of the tax authorities of the countries concerned.
E. 4.3 Possibility of opening avenues for tax planning
4.120 Safe harbours may also provide taxpayers with tax planning opportunities. Enterprises may have an incentive to modify their transfer prices in order to shift taxable income to other jurisdictions. This may also possibly induce tax avoidance, to the extent that artificial arrangements are entered into for the purpose of exploiting the safe harbour provisions. For instance, if safe harbours apply to “simple” or “small” transactions, taxpayers may be tempted to break transactions up into parts to make them seem simple or small.
4.121 If a safe harbour were based on an industry average, tax planning opportunities might exist for taxpayers with better than average profitability. For example, a cost-efficient company selling at the arm’s length price may be earning a mark-up of 15 percent on controlled sales. If a country adopts a safe harbour requiring a 10 percent mark up, the company might have an incentive to comply with the safe harbour and shift the remaining 5 percent to a lower tax jurisdiction. Consequently, taxable income would be shifted out of the country. When applied on a large scale, this could mean significant revenue loss for the country offering the safe harbour.
4.122 This concern may largely be avoided by the solution noted in paragraph 4.117 of adopting safe harbours on a bilateral or multilateral basis, thus limiting application of safe harbours to transactions involving countries with similar transfer pricing concerns. In adopting bilateral and multilateral safe harbours, tax administrations would need to be aware that the establishment of an extensive network of such arrangements could potentially encourage “safe harbour shopping” via the routing of transactions through territories with more favourable safe harbours and take appropriate steps to avoid that possibility. Similarly, countries adopting bilateral safe harbours would be well advised to target fairly narrow ranges of acceptable results and to require consistent reporting of income in each country that is a party to the safe harbour arrangement. Treaty exchange of information provisions could be used by countries where necessary to confirm the use of consistent reporting under such a bilateral safe harbour.
4.123 Whether a country is prepared to possibly suffer some erosion of its own tax base in implementing a safe harbour is for that country to decide. The basic trade-off in making such a policy decision is between the certainty and administrative simplicity of the safe harbour for taxpayers and tax administrations on the one hand, and the possibility of tax revenue erosion on the other.
E.4.4 Equity and uniformity issues
4.124 Safe harbours may raise equity and uniformity issues. By implementing a safe harbour, one would create two distinct sets of rules in the transfer pricing area. Clearly and carefully designed criteria are required to differentiate those taxpayers or transactions eligible for the safe harbour to minimise the possibility of similar and possibly competing taxpayers finding themselves on opposite sides of the safe harbour threshold or, conversely, of allowing application of the safe harbour to unintended taxpayers or transactions. Insufficiently precise criteria could result in similar taxpayers receiving different tax treatment: one being permitted to meet the safe harbour rules and thus to be relieved from general transfer pricing compliance provisions, and the other being obliged to price its transactions in conformity with the general transfer pricing compliance provisions. Preferential tax treatment under safe harbour regimes for a specific category of taxpayers could potentially entail discrimination and competitive distortions. The adoption of bilateral or multilateral safe harbours could, in some circumstances, increase the potential of a divergence in tax treatment, not merely between different but similar taxpayers but also between similar transactions carried out by the same taxpayer with associated enterprises in different jurisdictions.
E.5 Recommendations on use of safe harbours
4.125 Transfer pricing compliance and administration is often complex, time consuming and costly. Properly designed safe harbour provisions, applied in appropriate circumstances, can help to relieve some of these burdens and provide taxpayers with greater certainty.
4.126 Safe harbour provisions may raise issues such as potentially having perverse effects on the pricing decisions of enterprises engaged in controlled transactions and a negative impact on the tax revenues of the country implementing the safe harbour as well as on the countries whose associated enterprises engage in controlled transactions with taxpayers electing a safe harbour. Further, unilateral safe harbours may lead to the potential for double taxation or double non-taxation.
4.127 However, in cases involving smaller taxpayers or less complex transactions, the benefits of safe harbours may outweigh the problems raised by such provisions. Making such safe harbours elective to taxpayers can further limit the divergence from arm’s length pricing. Where countries adopt safe harbours, willingness to modify safe-harbour outcomes in mutual agreement proceedings to limit the potential risk of double taxation is advisable.
4.128 Where safe harbours can be negotiated on a bilateral or multilateral basis, they may provide significant relief from compliance burdens and administrative complexity without creating problems of double taxation or double non-taxation. Therefore, the use of bilateral or multilateral safe harbours under the right circumstances should be encouraged.
4.129 It should be clearly recognised that a safe harbour, whether adopted on a unilateral or bilateral basis, is in no way binding on or precedential for countries which have not themselves adopted the safe harbour.
4.130 For more complex and higher risk transfer pricing matters, it is unlikely that safe harbours will provide a workable alternative to a rigorous, case by case application of the arm’s length principle under the provisions of these Guidelines.
4.131 Country tax administrations should carefully weigh the benefits of and concerns regarding safe harbours, making use of such provisions where they deem it appropriate.
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