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Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications India Pvt. Ltd vs. CIT (Delhi High Court)
March, 21st 2015

Transfer Pricing: The “bright line test” has no statutory mandate and a broad-brush approach is not mandated or prescribed. Parameters specified in paragraph 17.4 of Special Bench verdict in L. G. Electronics are not binding on the assessed or the Revenue. Matter remanded to the Tribunal for de novo consideration because the legal standards or ratio accepted and applied by the Tribunal was erroneous

This High Court had to consider various issues arising from the judgement of the Special Bench of the Tribunal in L.G. Electronics India Pvt. Ltd. versus Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax, reported as (2013) 152 TTJ 273 (Del). The principal issue was whether advertisement, marketing and sale promotion expenditure (“AMP”, for short) beyond and exceeding the “bright line” is a separate and independent international transaction undertaken by the resident Indian assessee towards brand building for the brand owner, i.e. the foreign Associated Enterprise (“AE”, for short). There were several other core issues pertain to aspects of arm‘s length pricing of international transactions. HELD by the High Court remanding the issue to the Special Bench for reconsideration of the primary issue:

(i) In case of a distributor and marketing AE, the first step in transfer pricing is to ascertain and conduct detailed functional analysis, which would include AMP function/expenses.

(ii) The second step mandates ascertainment of comparables or comparable analysis. This would have reference to the method adopted which matches the functions and obligations performed by the tested party including AMP expenses.

(iii) A comparable is acceptable, if based upon comparison of conditions a controlled transaction is similar with the conditions in the transactions between independent enterprises. In other words, the economically relevant characteristics of the two transactions being compared must be sufficiently comparable. This entails and implies that difference, if any, between controlled and uncontrolled transaction, should not materially affect the conditions being examined given the methodology being adopted for determining the price or the margin. When this is not possible, it should be ascertained whether reasonably accurate adjustments can be made to eliminate the effect of such differences on the price or margin. Thus, identification of the potential comparables is the key to the transfer pricing analysis. As a sequitur, it follows that the choice of the most appropriate method would be dependent upon availability of potential comparable keeping in mind the comparability analysis including befitting adjustments which may be required. As the degree of the comparability increases, extent of potential differences which would render the analysis inaccurate necessarily decreases.

(iv) The assessed, i.e. the domestic AE must be compensated for the AMP expenses by the foreign AE. Such compensation may be included or subsumed in low purchase price or by not charging or charging lower royalty. Direct compensation can also be paid. The method selected and comparability analysis should be appropriated and reliable so as to include the AMP functions and costs.

(v) Where the Assessing Officer/TPO accepts the comparables adopted by the assessed, with or without making adjustments, as a bundled transaction, it would be illogical and improper to treat AMP expenses as a separate international transaction, for the simple reason that if the functions performed by the tested parties and the comparables match, with or without adjustments, AMP expenses are duly accounted for. It would be incongruous to accept the comparables and determine or accept the transfer price and still segregate AMP expenses as an international transaction.

(vi) The Assessing Officer/TPO can reject a method selected by the assessed for several reasons including want of reliability in the factual matrix or lack / non-availability of comparables. (see Section 92C(3) of the Act).

(vii) When the Assessing Officer/TPO rejects the method adopted by the assessed, he is entitled to select the most appropriate method, and undertake comparability analysis. Selection of the method and comparables should be as per the command and directive of the Act and Rules and justified by giving reasons.

(viii) Distribution and marketing are inter-connected and intertwined functions. Bunching of inter-connected and continuous transactions is permissible, provided the said transactions can be evaluated and adequately compared on aggregate basis. This would depend on the method adopted and comparability analysis and the most reliable means of determining arm‘s length price.

(ix) To assert and profess that brand building as equivalent or substantial attribute of advertisement and sale promotion would be largely incorrect. It represents a coordinated synergetic impact created by assortment largely representing reputation and quality. “Brand” has reference to a name, trademark or trade name and like “goodwill” is a value of attraction to customers arising from name and a reputation for skill, integrity, efficient business management or efficient service. Brand creation and value, therefore, depends upon a great number of facts relevant for a particular business. It reflects the reputation which the proprietor of the brand has gathered over a passage or period of time in the form of widespread popularity and universal approval and acceptance in the eyes of the customer. Brand value depends upon the nature and quality of goods and services sold or dealt with. Quality control being the most important element, which can mar or enhance the value.

(x) Parameters specified in paragraph 17.4 of the order dated 23rd January, 2013 in the case of L.G. Electronics India Pvt Ltd (supra) are not binding on the assessed or the Revenue. The “bright line test” has no statutory mandate and a broad-brush approach is not mandated or prescribed. We disagree with the Revenue and do not accept the overbearing and orotund submission that the exercise to separate “routine” and “non-routine” AMP or brand building exercise by applying “bright line test” of non-comparables should be sanctioned and in all cases, costs or compensation paid for AMP expenses would be “NIL”, or at best would mean the amount or compensation expressly paid for AMP expenses. It would be conspicuously wrong and incorrect to treat the segregated transactional value as “NIL” when in fact the two AEs had treated the international transactions as a package or a single one and contribution is attributed to the aggregate package. Unhesitatingly, we add that in a specific case this criteria and even zero attribution could be possible, but facts should so reveal and require. To this extent, we would disagree with the majority decision in L.G. Electronics India Pvt. Ltd. (supra). This would be necessary when the arm‘s length price of the controlled transaction cannot be adequately or reliably determined without segmentation of AMP expenses.

(xi) The Assessing Officer/TPO for good and sufficient reasons can de-bundle interconnected transactions, i.e. segregate distribution, marketing or AMP transactions. This may be necessary when bundled transactions cannot be adequately compared on aggregate basis.

(xii) When segmentation or segregation of a bundled transaction is required, the question of set off and apportionment must be examined realistically and with a pragmatic approach. Transfer pricing is an income allocating exercise to prevent artificial shifting of net incomes of controlled taxpayers and to place them on parity with uncontrolled, unrelated taxpayers. The exercise undertaken should not result in over or double taxation. Thus, the Assessing Officer/TPO can segregate AMP expenses as an independent international transaction, but only after elucidating grounds and reasons for not accepting the bunching adopted by the assessed, and examining and giving benefit of set off. Section 92(3) does not bar or prohibit set off.

(xiii) CP Method is a recognised and accepted method under Indian transfer pricing regulation. It can be applied by the Assessing Officer/TPO in case AMP expenses are treated as a separate international transaction, provided CP Method is the most appropriate and reliable method. Adoption of CP Method and computation of cost and gross profit margin comparable must be justified.

(xiv) The object and purpose of Transfer Pricing adjustment is to ensure that the controlled taxpayers are given tax parity with uncontrolled taxpayers by determining their true taxable income. Costs or expenses incurred for services provided or in respect of property transferred, when made subject matter of arm‘s length price by applying CP Method, cannot be again factored or included as a part of inter-connected international transaction and subjected to arm‘s length pricing.

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