We welcome back guest bloggers Professor Susan C. Morse from University of Texas School of Law and my colleague Senior Lecturer on Law Stephen E. Shay from Harvard. Professors Morse and Shay, building on an earlier post as well as their amicus brief, explain that the Tax Court went too far in striking down Treasury regulations requiring the sharing of stock-based compensation costs in Altera. The underlying issue as well as the procedural issue make this a case to watch. We have previously blogged about Altera here and here. Keith
On Wednesday of this week, October 11, the Ninth Circuit will hear argument in Altera, a case about transfer pricing and administrative law. Politically, Altera is a case about big multinational technology companies and under-resourced government regulators. Technically, it is about the transfer of intellectual property rights from U.S. affiliates of a multinational firm (a “U.S. group”) to one or more non-U.S. offshore subsidiaries under a qualified cost sharing arrangement (QCSA).
Firms from Google and Apple to Altera, a semiconductor company owned by Intel, use the QCSA “cost sharing” strategy to support the attribution of intellectual property for tax purposes to low-tax offshore subsidiaries and thereby justify allocation of substantial taxable income to those subsidiaries. The smaller the amount of U.S. group costs included in the pool, the more tax revenue the U.S. loses with respect to the cost-shared IP. Billions of dollars are at stake. Two amicus briefs prepared pro bono by academics and former tax practitioners support the government and multiple amicus briefs on behalf of interested business groups support the taxpayer in this important litigation.
Altera challenged a final Treasury regulation that requires multinationals who enter into QCSAs with offshore affiliates to include the cost of stock options granted to employees who develop the IP (among other expenses) in the pool of costs to be shared. Under cost sharing, if net costs are borne by the U.S. group the non-U.S. affiliates must reimburse the U.S. group for that amount. Prior regulations did not specifically address the issue of stock option cost allocation in a QCSA. In a prior case, Xilinx, the Tax Court and Ninth Circuit held that the government could not make offshore affiliates pay a share of stock option expense under these earlier regulations.
The revised final regulation requires taxpayers to include stock option costs in the pool of expenses for determining cost sharing payments. They provide that this is required under the arm’s length standard and, consistent with the directive of Section 482 of the Internal Revenue Code, is necessary clearly to reflect the income of the U.S. group.
Taxpayers challenged the final regulation and won in Tax Court in a reviewed decision that was unanimous among the judges that participated. The Court held that the regulations departed from the historic understanding of “arm’s length standard” which required the use of data about unrelated party transactions. The Tax Court proceeded to conclude, under a review based on State Farm (US 1983), that the regulatory change was arbitrary and capricious under § 706(2)(A) of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The misconception in the Tax Court’s decision is fundamental. One reason is that the historic understanding of “arm’s length standard” does not require the starting point of data about unrelated party transactions. Sometimes an application of the arm’s length standard uses unrelated party data. For example, if a taxpayer sells a commodity to related affiliates and unrelated firms, the unrelated firm price is the right starting point for the related affiliate price, because it is sufficiently comparable. But in other cases, unrelated party transactions are not comparable enough to serve as good starting points.
The arm’s length standard has always been a counterfactual inquiry. It has always asked how a related party transaction would be treated if, contrary to fact, the same transaction (including the actual relationships presented in fact) were conducted by unrelated parties (i..e, as though the relationship did not exist). This does not mean insisting that the reasoning begin with an unrelated party transaction if that transaction has sufficiently different facts and is not comparable.
Several transfer pricing methods, including the comparable and residual profit split methods, do not require use of unrelated party prices as starting points. Moreover, large chunks of the 482 rules prove that the arm’s length standard is not a brittle instruction to use whatever unrelated party information is available. The 482 regs include many pages of comparability adjustments which at every turn show that a starting unrelated party price, even if available, often needs a lot of work before it can be considered a comparable.
Altera and other multinational tech companies want to avoid paying for the stock option cost component of technology by arguing that unrelated firms that share technology do not require payment for stock option costs. They say that the arm’s length standard requires a starting unrelated party data point, and further that any departure from the unrelated party data point requirement is a significant regulatory change.
One reason that Altera should lose in the Ninth Circuit is because the arm’s length standard does not, and never has, required a starting unrelated party data point in all cases. Government briefs include this argument. They show that uncontrolled joint development agreements were not relevant to the question of whether to include stock option costs in QCSAs because clear reflection of income for high-profit intangibles cannot succeed if it relies on uncontrolled party data. One amicus brief points out that Section 482’s reference to pricing “commensurate with income” only makes sense if the arm’s length standard embraces transfer pricing that is not bound to unrelated party pricing.
Another amicus brief (ours, with coauthors) explains that unrelated party data points cannot be starting points for an arm’s length analysis if the unrelated information is wholly incomparable to the related party situation. This is the case for the evidence that Altera points to, which consists of technology sharing deals among unrelated parties that do not mention stock option costs. This evidence is not relevant for QCSAs because it is not comparable.
The facts of Example 2 in our brief illustrate the lack of comparability between unrelated party joint ventures and related party technology transfer agreements:
Assume that Company C and Company D are unrelated and want to share the R&D costs and benefits for a new innovation on a 50/50 basis.
Company C pays cash compensation of 80 and grants stock options with an expected cost of 20 for its R&D employees. Company D pays cash compensation of 20 and grants stock options with an expected cost of 80 for its R&D employees. There are two possible ways of looking at the R&D costs in this deal:
Option 1: If stock option expenses are included, the pool of expenses is 200, and each company pays 100. No transfer between C and D is required to achieve a 50/50 split of expenses.
Option 2: If stock option expenses are not included, the pool of expenses is 100: 80 contributed by Company C and 20 contributed by Company D. D would transfer 30 to C to achieve a 50/50 split of expenses.
The correct answer is Option 1. Any rational economic actor would estimate and incorporate the stock option expense cost. Note that Company C and Company D do not need to mention stock option costs in order to consider and incorporate them into their transaction. The lack of a specific mention of stock options in the unrelated party deal document does not mean that stock option costs are priced at zero or intentionally disregarded.
The arm’s length standard has always recognized the absence of comparable third-party transactions in some areas of transfer pricing, including the large-scale licensing of IP among related parties. Thus the revised regulation at issue in Altera does not revolutionize the meaning of arm’s length. Instead it stays true to the meaning of clear reflection of income.
Tune in again after October 11 to hear how the taxpayer, the government and the judges of the Ninth Circuit approached this case at oral argument.