Transfer pricing, the process by which multinational companies set arm’s-length prices for cross-border transactions within a corporate group, is complex and consistently ranks as the No. 1 international tax issue facing multinational companies, according to Ernst & Young’s 2009 Global transfer pricing survey. To avoid penalties and potential interest, most tax authorities require taxpayers to prepare annual transfer pricing reports when they file tax returns.
During its infancy, transfer pricing was dominated by economists. However, as global transfer pricing regulations developed, international examiners gained experience and financial accounting standards evolved. Consequently, companies now need experienced tax accountants not only to validate the reliability of the data during tax controversies but also to guide taxpayers during implementation. There is definitely still a role for economists on project teams, but CPAs are probably more conversant with such steps as making a compensating adjustment journal entry or quantifying FIN 48 risks (FASB Interpretation no. 48, Accounting for Uncertainty in Income Taxes, now codified in FASB ASC Topic 740) for financial reporting purposes.
Below are examples of transfer pricing issues where expert accounting skills are important:
Financial reporting. Certain industries have unique accounting revenue and expense treatment, and to calculate the appropriate benchmark ratios for transfer pricing purposes, an accountant needs to analyze the financial statement footnotes and understand which items are characterized as operating, pass-through, etc. For example, the income statements for a professional services firm include a special line item called “reimbursements” under the revenue and cost-of-sales categories. Reimbursements are generally pass-through contractor costs and reimbursed expenses and would likely be excluded from the operating revenue and operating expense calculations for transfer pricing purposes. In addition, with the currently volatile economy and corresponding impact on profitability, companies are increasingly monitoring their taxable income in each jurisdiction and likely making year-end compensating adjustments to the books and records to get profit margins within the arm’s-length ranges.
Transfer pricing audit document requests. The IRS and other tax authorities historically requested that taxpayers provide copies of their transfer pricing reports to support their pricing during audit years. Fast-forward to the current environment, and a typical audit request specifies tying the transfer pricing data from reports to general ledgers, consolidating income statements and balance sheets.
FIN 48 analysis. Public companies and their auditors are now required to analyze the income tax calculations and determine if the company needs to quantify and include in the financial statements any tax exposures that are “more likely than not” to be sustained upon examination. Auditors have increasingly identified transfer pricing risks, especially adjustments and penalties proposed by tax authorities, and forced taxpayers to disclose the details in SEC public filings and book reserves.
Reliability of financial data. Since much of transfer pricing financial analysis involves comparing unaudited financial statements with audited ones, a tax accountant who can validate the reliability of the unaudited data is invaluable, especially in tax controversy settings.
IRS analysis of adjustments and methods. The trend toward an increased focus on the accounting details of intercompany transactions may be a result of the IRS’ hiring international examiners with accounting backgrounds. Whatever the reason, the IRS has placed a new emphasis on reviewing all accounting and functional differences between the taxpayer-tested party and the comparable companies selected in the transfer pricing report. For example, during a recent meeting of a taxpayer with the IRS, the IRS international examiner compared each accounting line item from the taxpayer’s annual report with those of the comparable companies to make sure that adjustments were considered for any differences in functions or risks. Similarly, the examiner insisted on analyzing all potential transfer pricing methods and profit level indicators available, even though the IRS had agreed to the same method and profit level indicator with the taxpayer twice previously and the facts hadn’t changed significantly.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with the increasing complexity of transfer pricing and diminishing taxable income of corporations, the level of scrutiny by tax authorities has risen exponentially. In fact, in 2009, the IRS announced plans to hire an additional 800 agents in fiscal 2010 to focus on international examinations, and the agency’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget contains funding for 800 more. The field of transfer pricing will continue to grow and present employment opportunities for practitioners with the desired blend of economics and tax accounting skills.
By Steve Snyder, CPA/CFF, CVA, (firstname.lastname@example.org) a director with Navigant Consulting Inc. in Atlanta.
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