The comparable profits method (CPM), is a transfer pricing method that relies on the principle that similarly situated taxpayers tend to earn similar returns over time. The CPM determines transfer prices by comparing entity-level operating results with those of uncontrolled taxpayers engaged in similar activities under similar circumstances. Typically, the operating results of one party to the transaction—the tested party—are determined based on the CPM analysis, and the residual profits are allocated to the other party.1
This article examines the evolution of the CPM from its beginnings to its current status as the dominant method used by multinational companies today.
Emergence of Profitability-Based Transfer Pricing Methods
The original U.S. transfer pricing regulations, published in 1968, prescribed a variety of "transactional" pricing methods, which focused on the price of an intercompany transaction or group of transactions. In practice, these methods often fell short of government expectations due to the unavailability of comparable data and taxpayers' advantage of having access to more information than the government. Differences in volume, markets, branding, terms & conditions, etc., all had an impact on transfer prices, and it was believed that taxpayers were cherry picking the information that they employed in support of their transfer prices, to the government's disadvantage.
In response to these concerns, the Internal Revenue Service (the Service) began employing profitability-based transfer pricing approaches as tests of reasonableness. For example, in the case of E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. United States (DuPont)2, the U.S. parent company incorporated DuPont International S.A., (DISA), in Switzerland to serve as a distributor of DuPont products in Europe. Evidence introduced in court indicated that DuPont planned to sell its goods to DISA at prices below fair market value, so that on resale most of the profits would be reported in a foreign country having lower tax rates than the United States. Because DISA performed no significant special services for either DuPont or its customers to support such income on economic grounds, the Service reallocated much of this profit back to the U.S. parent. In support of its position, the government introduced expert testimony at trial comparing DISA's operating results to that of a group of 21 comparable distributors and to that of 1133 companies representative of the industry as a whole. Based on this evidence, the court sustained the Service's allocations. Similar approaches were employed in Lilly3 and Searle4among other cases. Despite the Service's use of profit-based approaches to test the results of taxpayers' transfer pricing, taxpayers continued to use the transactional pricing methods in accordance with the 1968 regulations.
Formal Adoption of Profitability Based Pricing Methods in the U.S.
In response to the government's rising concerns over taxpayers' use of transactional transfer pricing methods to improperly shift income outside the U.S., the Service reexamined the U.S. transfer pricing regulations and recommended that a profit-based approach should be formally adopted as a transfer pricing technique.5 In 1995, the Treasury published regulations setting forth this approach as a prescribed method called the comparable profits method or CPM.6 In addition, the regulations provided that taxpayers could affirmatively use the CPM (and other methods) to report the results of intercompany transactions on a tax return "based upon prices different from those actually charged.7
Due to the arm's length standard being the international norm, a potential for disputes over primary taxing jurisdiction would exist if the United States unilaterally adopted a transfer pricing method that violated the world's view of arm's length principles. To avoid the resulting confusion and disruption to international trade, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued transfer pricing guidelines in 1995 which introduced the transaction net margin method, (TNMM), a method broadly analogous to the CPM.8 Although OECD guidelines do not have the authority of law, they nonetheless have great influence among both OECD member nations and non-member nations. Most member nations have expressly or implicitly adopted the TNMM or some variation thereof in their tax systems. Many non-member nations, wishing to provide their resident industries and treasuries with a level playing field, have followed suit.
The CPM has long been the most widely used transfer pricing method among large multinational companies. This is evidenced in part by the U.S. Treasury's annual report on its advance pricing agreement (APA) program.9 Of the APAs concluded in 2019, 81% involved transfers of tangible and intangible property, and 82% of APAs involved in services transaction relying on CPM. The CPM/TNMM was used for 86% of transfers of tangible and intangible property while all other methods combined accounted for the other 19% of such transactions. The report states:
"The CPM is frequently . . . [used] . . . because reliable public data on comparable business activities of independent companies may be more readily available than potential [transactional] data, and comparability of resources employed, functions, risks, and other relevant considerations are more likely to exist than comparability of product."10
Today, many multinational companies utilize the CPM to enjoy its many benefits.
The benefits of the CPM as the basis for a company's global transfer pricing system include:
- Tax savings - because the CPM effectively ensures tested party profitability over the long term, the method is effective in avoiding stranded net operating losses, which provide no current tax benefit. Accordingly, the adoption of the CPM frequently results in a reduction of worldwide income taxes.
- Risk reduction - because profitability-based methods have garnered widespread global support, the risk of a government adjustment on one side of the transaction is reduced. The potential costs of a government-initiated adjustment may be enormous because the amount of an adjustment is effectively taxed twice - once in each jurisdiction. Correlative relief from double taxation is not assured and may be unavailable depending on the treaty relationship between the two taxing jurisdictions.
- Administrative ease - because the methodology is generally applied at the entity level (rather than the transaction level), companies realize increased flexibility, simplicity and administrative ease.
- Compliance with accounting standards and Tax Return Preparer Penalty Rules - Given the CPM's widespread acceptance and use, taxpayers adopting the CPM generally will be in a better position to more readily comply with ASC 74011 and new U.S. tax return preparer penalty rules under section 6694.
Although the advantages of the CPM are great, there are issues and risks associated with utilization of the CPM as a global transfer pricing method:
- Transfer pricing risk related to pre-adoption years - any change of transfer pricing method presents the risk that the newly adopted method may shed light on past deficiencies. Such exposure may be more readily understood and accepted by shareholders, tax authorities and other constituents to the extent that a method change can be coordinated with a business change, or other external event.
- Foreign tax variations - although most countries have embraced profitability-based transfer pricing methods, many countries maintain formal or informal variations in their tax laws and practices. An understanding of foreign tax law and practice, and flexibility are required to avoid conflicts with foreign tax authorities.
- Management accounting- it is important to understand the impact of the CPM on other aspects of the business such as employee remuneration. For example, bonus plans that are based on entity-level operating profits may need to be modified to adjust for the effect of the CPM on bonus pools.
- Customs duties - Intercompany transactions may come with associated tariff or duty costs; in this case the effect of the taxpayer's transfer pricing policies, and specifically the impact of any transfer pricing adjustments, should be carefully considered in light of the associated customs implications.
The CPM has emerged as the dominant transfer pricing method among multinational companies today due to its widespread acceptance by taxing authorities around the world, its administrative ease of use and often opportunities for tax rate reduction. Those opportunities may also be accompanied by certain risks, however. Taxpayers utilizing the CPM should seek the advice of an experienced practitioner to ensure that opportunities are maximized and any potential issues are identified and addressed.