Price it right: the importance of cost accounting for intragroup services
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Price it right: the importance of cost accounting for intragroup services

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Multinational enterprises must include transfer pricing and cost accounting experts in taking an integrated approach to supporting the arm’s-length nature of intragroup service charges, say Enrique Marchesi-Herce, Gilles Andreini, and Serena Picariello of Deloitte Luxembourg

Intragroup services play a pivotal role within multinational enterprise (MNE) groups across industries, facilitating seamless operations and synergies across the group. Transfer pricing (TP) emerges as a critical consideration in these types of intragroup transactions, emphasising the need to comply with the arm’s-length principle. A key consideration that is often overlooked, yet crucial, is the proper determination of the cost base for pricing these intragroup services. The complexities involved in evaluating and allocating costs accurately can pose significant challenges in setting appropriate charges at arm’s length.

To address this, MNEs must ensure cost accounting practices are aligned with TP principles as much as possible through integrated systems and processes to enhance compliance and ensure the robustness of their TP model.

Intragroup services and transfer pricing

Intragroup services encompass a range of activities such as management, administrative, and shared services – that are essential to ensuring operational efficiency across entities within the same group. Chapter 7 of the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and Tax Administrations provides guidance on recognising and pricing these intragroup services.

The first step is to determine whether intragroup services have indeed been provided. This must be assessed under the ‘benefits test’, which determines whether an activity performed by one group member provides economic or commercial value to another. As stated in the OECD TP guidelines, if an activity involves shareholder interests or duplicate services, it fails the benefits test. Thus, no intragroup service should be recognised in these cases.

Once it is established that an intragroup service has been rendered, the second step involves determining the appropriate charge in accordance with the arm’s-length principle. For this step, the most suitable TP method is selected, which typically is the cost plus method. Specific considerations include determining the appropriate cost base, applying a direct or indirect charge method, selecting appropriate allocation keys for distributing costs among service recipients, and deciding on the inclusion of a profit component or mark-up in the charge.

Intragroup services have been, and continue to be, an area of heightened scrutiny by tax authorities. While attention has traditionally been directed towards the suitability of the TP method, profit mark-up, and the benefits test, there is now an increasing focus on determining the cost pool. The cost pool must capture all costs incurred by the service provider(s) in delivering intragroup services and identify the corresponding accounting cost centres.

A proper understanding and analysis of the cost pool and the corresponding accounting cost centres is essential to ensure that the charges for intragroup services comply with the arm’s-length principle.

Interplays between transfer pricing and cost base analysis

Despite the OECD TP guidelines stressing the importance of proper cost pool determination, cost accounting remains a complex matter for businesses due to several factors. To begin with, in various industries, particularly in the realm of intellectual property products and services, incremental costs are a prevailing market trend. This trend is often accompanied by varying levels of utilisation among different service recipients, resulting in differing degrees of ‘benefit’ derived by each recipient. In addition, heterogeneous drivers for the allocation of indirect costs and differing accounting treatments further complicate the process.

For these reasons, the TP analyses typically cover the aspects related to benefits and mark-ups comprehensively, but, in some instances, they fail to sufficiently explore the cost base, which threatens the integrity of the TP model. To avoid these pitfalls and ensure the accuracy and reliability of TP arrangements, it is crucial, before determining any other aspect, to have an adequate understanding of the content and dynamics of the cost base.

This involves analysing how all the costs, whether direct or overhead, occur within the business processes, understanding their native allocation in the organisational structure, and carefully tracking their iterations in relation to services/products.

Furthermore, implementing appropriate IT systems and processes that integrate cost accounting practices with TP principles is essential to facilitate seamless data flow, enhance accuracy in cost allocation, and ensure compliance with TP regulations.

Key takeaways

In conclusion, it is crucial to have a robust cost allocation process and recharge methodology in place.

Given the complexity of the topic, it is essential for MNEs to involve both TP and cost accounting experts in the establishment of integrated IT systems and processes to support the arm’s-length nature of the intragroup service charges. This integrated approach enables MNEs to identify and mitigate potential risks associated with misallocation of costs, thereby strengthening their TP strategies and compliance efforts.

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