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Navigating Transfer Pricing Rules in the US and the UK

Transfer pricing has emerged as a pivotal concern for multinational enterprises (MNEs) engaging in significant related-party transactions. In an increasingly interconnected global economy, tax authorities worldwide are intensifying their scrutiny of these transactions, imposing adjustments and penalties to ensure that multinational corporations pay their fair share of taxes in each jurisdiction. While the specifics of transfer pricing laws may vary by country, their overarching intent remains consistent: to ensure that MNEs' income is appropriately taxed in the jurisdictions where it is genuinely earned.

Navigating Transfer Pricing Rules in the US and the UK

The Arm's-Length Principle: A Global Standard

At the heart of transfer pricing regulations lies the arm's-length principle, an internationally recognized standard for valuing cross-border transactions among related parties. This principle aims to prevent the artificial shifting of taxable profits and ensure that MNEs report their income accurately based on the economic activity undertaken in each jurisdiction.

Under the arm's-length principle, the income reported by related parties involved in a transaction should mirror that of independent parties engaging in a similar transaction under comparable circumstances. This principle serves as a safeguard against profit manipulation and tax avoidance strategies that erode a country's tax base.

Transfer Pricing in the United States

In the United States, the framework for transfer pricing is primarily governed by Section 482 of the Internal Revenue Code. This section comes into play when two or more organizations, trades, or businesses are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the same interests. It serves as the cornerstone for determining the true taxable income of controlled taxpayers.

The key concept in US transfer pricing is the arm's-length standard, emphasizing that the income reported by related parties in a transaction should align with what independent parties would report in a comparable transaction under similar conditions. To ensure consistency and accuracy in applying this standard, the US Treasury regulations outline various methods for determining comparability and require the use of the most reliable method.

Section 482 provides the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with significant discretion to "distribute, apportion, or allocate gross income, deductions, credits, or allowances" between or among controlled enterprises if it is deemed necessary to prevent tax evasion or to reflect the income accurately.

Challenging an IRS transfer pricing adjustment places a dual burden on the taxpayer. Firstly, the taxpayer must demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that any proposed adjustment by the IRS is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, amounting to an abuse of discretion. Secondly, the taxpayer must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (meaning greater than a 50% probability) what the proper arm's-length result should be.

Furthermore, the court retains the authority to independently determine the arm's-length result if it finds that neither party's proposed outcome is correct. This discretionary power can significantly influence the selection and application of the appropriate transfer pricing method.

Transfer Pricing Penalties in the US

While the United States has not adopted a general anti-avoidance rule (GAAR) applicable to corporate income tax, it has implemented a robust transfer pricing penalty regime. Recent IRS guidance underscores the importance of high-quality transfer pricing documentation, warning that subpar reporting can lead to extensive information requests from auditors and potential penalties.

The US transfer pricing penalty regime encompasses two primary categories:

  1. Transactional Penalty: This penalty applies to individual transactions where the transfer price is determined to be significantly different from the arm's-length price by the IRS. The regulations impose a 20% non-deductible transactional penalty on any tax underpayment attributable to a transfer price claimed on a tax return that is either 200% or more or 50% or less than the arm's-length price. The penalty escalates to 40% if the reported transfer price is either 400% or more or 25% or less than the arm's-length price. To avoid this penalty, the taxpayer must demonstrate reasonable cause and good faith in determining the reported transfer price.

  2. Net Adjustment Penalty: This penalty comes into play when a net transfer pricing adjustment leads to a tax underpayment. It imposes a 20% penalty on the tax underpayment attributable to a net increase in taxable income caused by the transfer pricing adjustment, provided it exceeds either $5 million or 10% of gross receipts. The penalty increases to 40% if the net transfer pricing adjustment exceeds either $20 million or 20% of gross receipts. To avoid this penalty, the taxpayer must show that they had a reasonable basis for believing that their transfer pricing would produce arm's-length results. Additionally, the taxpayer must maintain appropriate documentation of the analysis supporting their belief and provide it to the IRS within 30 days upon request.

One crucial aspect of the US transfer pricing penalty regime is that a taxpayer may face either a transactional penalty or a net adjustment penalty, depending on the circumstances, but not both. The penalty with the highest applicable rate will be applied to avoid double taxation.

The primary focus of the US transfer pricing regulations revolves around the documentation requirements. Meeting these requirements is essential for taxpayers to mitigate the risk of significant penalties for non-compliance and to facilitate compliance with Section 482.

The Economic Substance Doctrine in the US

While Section 482 has been the traditional focal point of transfer pricing regulations in the United States, the IRS may also invoke the economic substance doctrine in future transfer pricing disputes. The economic substance doctrine serves as an anti-abuse mechanism that allows a court to deny the tax benefits of a transaction if the transaction lacks a non-tax business purpose or fails to meaningfully change the taxpayer's economic position.

In recent years, the IRS utilized the economic substance doctrine alongside Section 482 in the Perrigo Co v. United States case. This approach may become more prevalent in future cases, potentially posing additional challenges to taxpayers. Unlike Section 482, there is no reasonable cause and good faith penalty defense for economic substance penalties.

Under the economic substance doctrine, a 20% penalty is imposed on tax benefits arising from a transaction that lacks economic substance, and this penalty increases to 40% if the transaction was not disclosed on the taxpayer's US federal income tax return. The introduction of the economic substance doctrine reflects the IRS's determination to combat tax strategies that lack a legitimate non-tax purpose.

Transfer Pricing Regulations in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, similar to the United States, transfer pricing regulations are aligned with the arm's-length principle outlined by the OECD. The UK's domestic transfer pricing rules are detailed in Part 4 of the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Act 2010. These rules interact with the UK's corporation tax and income tax regulations, necessitating adjustments to tax returns and computations to ensure the proper application of the arm's-length principle.

Furthermore, the UK has implemented a unique tax called the Diverted Profits Tax (DPT). This tax, introduced in 2015, targets profit diversion by MNEs through related-party transactions that lack economic substance or involve tax-motivated avoidance of establishing a UK taxable presence.

The DPT imposes a main rate of 31%, representing a 6% premium over the standard UK corporation tax rate. Specific sectors, such as banking and oil, face even higher rates under the DPT.

The DPT applies in two primary scenarios:

  1. Lack of Economic Substance: When related-party arrangements, whether involving UK resident or non-UK resident companies, lack economic substance and enable the exploitation of tax mismatches.

  2. Avoidance of UK Taxable Presence: When a non-UK resident company avoids establishing a UK taxable presence (known as an avoided permanent establishment), significantly reducing the total tax derived from its UK activities.

The calculation of the DPT liability hinges on various factors, and distinct calculations apply depending on the triggering event (lack of economic substance or avoided permanent establishment). In nearly all cases, the calculation involves comparing the actual transaction with an alternative transaction that would have been entered into if tax considerations were not a factor for any of the involved parties. This comparison aligns with traditional transfer pricing principles, including profit attribution and the arm's-length principle.

One key feature of the DPT rules is the possibility of giving credit, on a just and reasonable basis, to reduce the DPT charge when corporation tax, foreign tax, or a relevant controlled foreign company charge has already been paid on the same profits. However, it is not guaranteed that another jurisdiction will provide unilateral credit against its domestic tax for a DPT charge on the same taxable profits. This has raised concerns about double taxation for MNEs.

Historically, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has considered the DPT as a separate, standalone UK tax charge rather than a covered tax under the UK's double taxation treaty (DTT) network. This classification has led to the risk of double taxation for MNEs operating internationally, depending on the jurisdictions involved.

To address this issue, a legislative change in the UK in 2022 allowed relief against the DPT when necessary to implement a decision reached in a mutual agreement procedure (MAP) under an applicable DTT. This change aims to reconcile unilateral charges like the DPT with the provisions of bilateral tax conventions, alleviating double taxation concerns.

In light of this legislative amendment, HMRC launched a consultation in June 2023 to explore reforms to the DPT, transfer pricing, and permanent establishment rules. Notably, the consultation includes a proposal to bring the DPT into the UK corporation tax regime. These potential reforms reflect ongoing efforts to make the DPT and related regulations clearer and more accessible for taxpayers.


Multinational enterprises (MNEs) operating in today's global business landscape must carefully navigate the intricate transfer pricing rules and regulations in both the United States and the United Kingdom. While the specific laws may differ between these countries, the fundamental principles underlying transfer pricing—such as the arm's-length principle and accurate income reporting—are consistent.

To ensure compliance and minimize tax-related risks, MNEs should adopt comprehensive and contemporaneous transfer pricing documentation practices. This documentation not only serves as a safeguard against significant penalties for non-compliance but also facilitates adherence to local requirements in both the US and the UK transfer pricing regimes.

Companies must also conduct a thorough evaluation of their inter-company agreements, assess the economic substance of underlying transactions, stay informed about current trends in transfer pricing cases, and explore all available avenues for double taxation treaty (DTT) relief. This includes considering the treatment of the UK's Diverted Profits Tax (DPT) in DTTs to mitigate the risk of double taxation.

As the global tax landscape continues to evolve, with initiatives like the OECD's two-pillar solution on base erosion, staying informed and proactive in managing transfer pricing matters remains paramount for MNEs operating in these jurisdictions. The complex interplay between domestic laws, international agreements, and evolving regulations underscores the importance of a strategic and diligent approach to transfer pricing compliance.



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