Arm’s Length Principle


This Chapter provides a background discussion of the arm’s length principle, which is the international transfer pricing standard that OECD member countries have agreed should be used for tax purposes by MNE groups and tax administrations. The Chapter discusses the arm’s length principle, reaffirms its status as the international standard, and sets forth guidelines for its application.

When independent enterprises transact with each other, the conditions of their commercial and financial relations (e.g. the price of goods transferred or services provided and the conditions of the transfer or provision) ordinarily are determined by market forces. When associated enterprises transact with each other, their commercial and financial relations may not be directly affected by external market forces in the same way, although associated enterprises often seek to replicate the dynamics of market forces in their transactions with each other, as discussed in paragraph 1.5 below. Tax administrations should not automatically assume that associated enterprises have sought to manipulate their profits. There may be a genuine difficulty in accurately determining a market price in the absence of market forces or when adopting a particular commercial strategy. It is important to bear in mind that the need to make adjustments to approximate arm’s length conditions arises irrespective of any contractual obligation undertaken by the parties to pay a particular price or of any intention of the parties to minimize tax. Thus, a tax adjustment under the arm’s length principle would not affect the underlying contractual obligations for non-tax purposes between the associated enterprises, and may be appropriate even where there is no intent to minimize or avoid tax. The consideration of transfer pricing should not be confused with the consideration of problems of tax fraud or tax avoidance, even though transfer pricing policies may be used for such purposes.

When transfer pricing does not reflect market forces and the arm’s length principle, the tax liabilities of the associated enterprises and the tax revenues of the host countries could be distorted. Therefore, OECD member countries have agreed that for tax purposes the profits of associated enterprises may be adjusted as necessary to correct any such distortions and thereby ensure that the arm’s length principle is satisfied. OECD member countries consider that an appropriate adjustment is achieved by establishing the conditions of the commercial and financial relations that they would expect to find between independent enterprises in comparable transactions under comparable circumstances.

Factors other than tax considerations may distort the conditions of commercial and financial relations established between associated enterprises. For example, such enterprises may be subject to conflicting governmental pressures (in the domestic as well as foreign country) relating to customs valuations, anti-dumping duties, and exchange or price controls. In addition, transfer price distortions may be caused by the cash flow requirements of enterprises within an MNE group. An MNE group that is publicly held may feel pressure from shareholders to show high profitability at the parent company level, particularly if shareholder reporting is not undertaken on a consolidated basis. All of these factors may affect transfer prices and the amount of profits accruing to associated enterprises within an MNE group.

It should not be assumed that the conditions established in the commercial and financial relations between associated enterprises will invariably deviate from what the open market would demand. Associated enterprises in MNEs sometimes have a considerable amount of autonomy and can often bargain with each other as though they were independent enterprises. Enterprises respond to economic situations arising from market conditions, in their relations with both third parties and associated enterprises. For example, local managers may be interested in establishing good profit records and therefore would not want to establish prices that would reduce the profits of their own companies. Tax administrations should keep these considerations in mind to facilitate efficient allocation of their resources in selecting and conducting transfer pricing examinations. Sometimes, it may occur that the relationship between the associated enterprises may influence the outcome of the bargaining. Therefore, evidence of hard bargaining alone is not sufficient to establish that the transactions are at arm’s length.


Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention

The authoritative statement of the arm’s length principle is found in paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention, which is the basis of bilateral tax treaties involving OECD member countries and an increasing number of non-member countries. Article 9 provides:

[Where] conditions are made or imposed between the two [associated] enterprises in their commercial or financial relations which differ from those which would be made between independent enterprises, then any profits which would, but for those conditions, have accrued to one of the enterprises, but, by reason of those conditions, have not so accrued, may be included in the profits of that enterprise and taxed accordingly.

By seeking to adjust profits by reference to the conditions which would have obtained between independent enterprises in comparable transactions and comparable circumstances (i.e. m “comparable uncontrolled transactions”), the arm’s length principle follows the approach of treating the members of an MNE group as operating as separate entities rather than as inseparable parts of a single unified business. Because the separate entity approach treats the members of an MNE group as if they were independent entities, attention is focused on the nature of the transactions between those members and on whether the conditions thereof differ from the conditions that would be obtained in comparable uncontrolled transactions. Such an analysis of the controlled and uncontrolled transactions, which is referred to as a “comparability analysis”, is at the heart of the application of the arm’s length principle. Guidance on the comparability analysis is found in Section D below and in Chapter III.

It is important to put the issue of comparability into perspective in order to emphasise the need for an approach that is balanced in terms of, on the one hand, its reliability and, on the other, the burden it creates for taxpayers and tax administrations. Paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention is the foundation for comparability analyses because it introduces the need for:

  • A comparison between conditions (including prices, but not only prices) made or imposed between associated enterprises and those which would be made between independent enterprises, in order to determine whether a re-writing of the accounts for the purposes ofcalculating tax liabilities of associated enterprises is authorised under Article 9 of the OECD Model Tax Convention (see paragraph 2 of the Commentary on Article 9); and
  • A determination of the profits which would have accrued at arm’s length, in order to determine the quantum of any re-writing of accounts.

There are several reasons why OECD member countries and other countries have adopted the arm’s length principle. A major reason is that the arm’s length principle provides broad parity of tax treatment for members of MNE groups and independent enterprises. Because the arm’s length principle puts associated and independent enterprises on a more equal footing for tax purposes, it avoids the creation of tax advantages or disadvantages that would otherwise distort the relative competitive positions of either type of entity. In so removing these tax considerations from economic decisions, the arm’s length principle promotes the growth of international trade and investment.

The arm’s length principle has also been found to work effectively in the vast majority of cases. For example, there are many cases involving the purchase and sale of commodities and the lending of money where an arm’s length price may readily be found in a comparable transaction undertaken by comparable independent enterprises under comparable circumstances. There are also many cases where a relevant comparison of transactions can be made at the level of financial indicators such as mark-up on costs, gross margin, or net profit indicators. Nevertheless, there are some significant cases in which the arm’s length principle is difficult and complicated to apply, for example, in MNE groups dealing in the integrated production of highly specialised goods, in unique intangibles, and/or in the provision of specialised services. Solutions exist to deal with such difficult cases, including the use of the transactional profit split method described in Chapter II, Part III of these Guidelines in those situations where it is the most appropriate method in the circumstances of the case.

The arm’s length principle is viewed by some as inherently flawed because the separate entity approach may not always account for the economies of scale and interrelation of diverse activities created by integrated businesses. There are, however, no widely accepted objective criteria for allocating between associated enterprises the economies of scale or benefits of integration resulting from group membership. The issue of possible alternatives to the arm’s length principle is discussed in Section C below.

A practical difficulty in applying the arm’s length principle is that associated enterprises may engage in transactions that independent enterprises would not undertake. Such transactions may not necessarily be motivated by tax avoidance but may occur because in transacting business with each other, members of an MNE group face different commercial circumstances than would independent enterprises. Where independent enterprises seldom undertake transactions of the type entered into by associated enterprises, the arm’s length principle is difficult to apply because there is little or no direct evidence of what conditions would have been established by independent enterprises. The mere fact that a transaction may not be found between independent parties does not of itself mean that it is not arm’s length.

In certain cases, the arm’s length principle may result in an administrative burden for both the taxpayer and the tax administrations of evaluating significant numbers and types of cross-border transactions. Although associated enterprises normally establish the conditions for a transaction at the time it is undertaken, at some point the enterprises may be required to demonstrate that these are consistent with the arm’s length principle. (See discussion of timing and compliance issues at Sections B and C of Chapter III and at Chapter V on Documentation). The tax administration may also have to engage in this vercation process perhaps some years after the transactions have taken place. The tax administration would review any supporting documentation prepared by the taxpayer to show that its transactions are consistent with the arm’s length principle, and may also need to gather information about comparable uncontrolled transactions, the market conditions at the time the transactions took place, etc., for numerous and varied transactions. Such an undertaking usually becomes more difficult with the passage of time.

Both tax administrations and taxpayers often have difficulty in obtaining adequate information to apply the arm’s length principle. Because the arm’s length principle usually requires taxpayers and tax administrations to evaluate uncontrolled transactions and the business activities of independent enterprises, and to compare these with the transactions and activities of associated enterprises, it can demand a substantial amount of data. The information that is accessible may be incomplete and difficult to interpret; other information, if it exists, may be difficult to obtain for reasons of its geographical location or that of the parties from whom it may have to be acquired. In addition, it may not be possible to obtain information from independent enterprises because of confidentiality concerns. In other cases information about an independent enterprise which could be relevant may simply not exist, or there may be no comparable independent enterprises, e.g. if that industry has reached a high level of vertical integration. It is important not to lose sight of the objective to find a reasonable estimate of an arm’s length outcome based on reliable information. It should also be recalled at this point that transfer pricing is not an exact science but does require the exercise of judgment on the part of both the tax administration and taxpayer.


Maintaining the arm’s length principle as the international consensus

While recognizing the foregoing considerations, the view of OECD member countries continues to be that the arm’s length principle should govern the evaluation of transfer prices among associated enterprises. The anrm’s length principle is sound in theory since it provides the closest approximation of the workings of the open market in cases where property (such as goods, other types of tangible assets, or intangible assets) is transferred or services are rendered between associated enterprises. While it may not always be straightforward to apply in practice, it does generally produce appropriate levels of income between members of MNE groups, acceptable to tax administrations. This reflects the economic realities of the controlled taxpayer’s particular facts and circumstances and adopts as a benchmark the normal operation of the market.

A move away from the arm’s length principle would abandon the sound theoretical basis described above and threaten the international consensus, thereby substantially increasing the risk of double taxation. Experience under the arm’s length principle has become sufficiently broad and sophisticated to establish a substantial body of common understanding among the business community and tax administrations. This shared understanding is of great practical value in achieving the objectives of securing the appropriate tax base in each jurisdiction and avoiding double taxation. This experience should be drawn on to elaborate the arm’s length principle further, to refine its operation, and to improve its administration by providing clearer guidance to taxpayers and more timely examinations. In sum, OECD member countries continue to support strongly the arm’s length principle. In fact, no legitimate or realistic alternative to the arm’s length principle has emerged. Global formulary apportionment, sometimes mentioned as a possible alternative, would not be acceptable in theory, implementation, or practice. (See Section C, immediately below, for a discussion of global formulary apportionment.)



Source: OECD Guidelines