Wx-Distributor (a subsidiary of the Wx-group i.d.F. Bw.) is responsible for the distribution of Household appliances in Austria. It is wholly owned by Z. Deliveries to Wx-Distributor are made by production companies of the Group located in Germany, Italy, France, Slovakia, Poland and Sweden with which it has concluded distribution agreements to determine transfer prices. On average Wx-Distributor had been loss-making in FY 2001-2005.
Following an tax audit, the intra-group transfer prices were re-determined for the years 2001 to 2004 by the tax authorities. It was determined that the transfer prices in two years were not within the arm’s length range. The review of the tax authorities had revealed a median EBIT margin of 1.53% and on that basis the operating margin for 2001 were set at 1.5%. For the following years the margin was set at 0.9% due to changed functions (outsourcing of accounts receivable, closure of half the IT department). The resulting adjustments were treated as hidden distribution of profits to the parent company.
An appeal was filed by Wx-Distributor.
Judgement of the Court
The Court decided predominantly in favour of the tax authorities.
“The functions and risks described above do not justify distribution agreements that do not ensure that the applicant, as a limited risk distributor, will not be able to achieve an overall (cumulative) positive operating result over a reasonable (foreseeable) period of time. This is also the case if this would be associated with higher losses for the independent production companies.”
“In the view of the UFS, the use of the median in the event that the EBIT margin achieved is outside the range is to be applied in the present case because, according to the study, there is no ‘highly reliable’ range (cf. Loukota/Jirousek comments on the criticism of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines 2010 ÖStZ 2011) due to comparability deficiencies.
Insofar as the applicant assumes that the correction of the EBIT margin to the median value constitutes an impermissible punitive taxation and possibly seeks an adjustment to the lower bandwidth value, whereby it recognisably refers to a decision of the BFH of 17 October 2001 I R 103/00, according to which an estimate is based on the upper or lower value of the bandwidth of arm’s length transfer prices, which is more favourable for the taxpayer. In addition to the existing comparability deficiencies, which in themselves justify an adjustment to the median, reference should also be made to the transfer pricing study by Baker&McKenzie from 2005, which was also submitted by the applicant.
It may be true that transfer prices have to be fixed in advance, but in the case at hand no transfer prices were fixed per transaction carried out; instead, distribution agreements had been concluded in unchanged form since 1999 and the arm’s length nature of these agreements was justified by the results of comparative company studies.
From the above point of view, it is permissible to use a study (Baker&McKenzie) for the further assessment of the arm’s length nature of the EBIT margin, which was prepared at a time (here 31 December 2005) that follows the period in which the net returns to be assessed were generated (2001 to 2005), but which refers to data material that originates from this period (2002 to 2004).
This is because a comparison of the net returns achieved in the period under review (2001 to 2005) with comparable enterprises based on data from the years 1996 to 1999 can at best be used for planning purposes, but subsequent significant developments in the period under review (e.g. economic downturns…) are not (or cannot be) taken into account.
According to Baker&McKenzie, the data material used in this process led to the result of comparable net yields with a median of 2.3% and a quartile range between 1.3% and 3.9%.
An appendix to this study, which was prepared especially for the company and deals with the special features of inventory adjustment, accounts receivable and accounts payable, shows a comparable median EBIT return for the company of 2.6% with a quartile range of 1.5% to 4.1%.
The values shown were achieved by comparable companies in the audit period and are consistently above the adapted median according to the transfer pricing study by Ernst & Young, which is why the adjustment to the lower range requested by the applicant is also unjustified for this reason.
If the UFS bases its assessment of the arm’s length transfer price on the Ernst & Young study and uses the median achieved there, this is because it follows the applicant’s argumentation regarding the price determination required in advance and for this reason bases its considerations regarding comparable net returns on the modified Ernst & Young transfer price study.
There are no other particular influencing factors that would make an adjustment of this study necessary.
In view of the above considerations, the UFS assumes that the median net return of 1.49% determined in the modified comparative study by Ernst & Young submitted by the applicant is appropriate and should be applied for the audit period.”