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    Safe Harbour vs APA

    Background of Safe Harbour: Tax payers often need to carry out complex transfer pricing analysis of their related party cross border transactions. Compelled to allocate resources for preparing detailed documentation, companies are thus burdened with significant costs associated with undertaking such an exercise. Moreover, transfer pricing analysis being a subjective exercise, may be viewed in different ways. The factual nature of transfer pricing determinations can be an extremely complex subject that frequently vexes both taxpayers and tax administrations alike. In the understandable desire to find bright line rules that do not require the exercise of judgment and analysis, it is often proposed that "safe harbors" be provided.


    Even OECD recognizes that applying the arm's length principle can be a fact-intensive process and uncertainty associated with it may impose a heavy administrative burden on taxpayers and tax administrations that can be aggravated by both legislative and compliance complexity. These facts have led a number of countries to consider whether transfer pricing safe harbors rules would be appropriate in the transfer pricing arena. The theory of a safe harbor is that the burdens imposed in applying the arm's length principle may be ameliorated by providing circumstances in which taxpayers could follow a simple set of rules under which a national tax administration would automatically accept transfer prices. In taxation contexts, the safe harbor concept typically refers to a statutory provision that applies to a given category of taxpayers and by substituting exceptional, usually simpler obligations, relieves eligible taxpayers from certain obligations that the tax code otherwise imposes. In effect, a safe harbor is a defined parameter. If the transfer pricing result falls within that parameter, tax administrations would not be allowed to make an adjustment. Hence, transfer pricing safe harbour rules would need to be designed to achieve the following objectives:


    • Compliance relief:


    • Certainty
    • Administrative simplicity


    The Finance (No 2) Act (FA), 2009 introduced provisions in the Indian Income-tax Law (ITL) that empowered the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), the apex Indian Tax Administration, to issue transfer pricing “safe harbor” rules. A “safe harbor” is defined in the ITL as circumstances in which the Tax Authority shall accept the transfer price declared by the taxpayer. The CBDT on 14 August 2013 released draft safe harbor rules for public comments. After considering comments of various stake holders, on 18 September 2013, the CBDT issued the final safe harbor rules.


    The rules provide minimum operating profit margins in relation to operating expenses a taxpayer is expected to earn for certain categories of international transactions, such as provision of software development services, information technology enabled services, (ITES), knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) services, contract research and development (R&D) services, manufacture and export of automotive components etc. that will be acceptable to the Tax Authority. The rules also provide acceptable norms for certain categories of financial transactions such as intra-group loans made or guarantees provided to nonresident affiliates of an Indian taxpayer.

    The transfer price contained in the safe harbor rules shall be applicable for five years beginning from financial year (FY) 2012-13. The safe harbor rules, optional for a taxpayer, contain the conditions and circumstances under which the norms/marginswould be accepted by the Tax Authority and the related compliance obligations. The taxpayer has flexibility in electing the years to be governed by the safe harbor rules within the five year period. Where a taxpayer’s transfer price is accepted by the Tax


    Authority under the safe harbor rules, the taxpayer shall not be entitled to invoke the mutual agreement procedure (MAP) under an applicable tax treaty.




    • If safe harbour opted, taxpayer not entitled to make any comparability adjustments nor avail benefit of the prescribed variation.
    • Taxpayer required to comply with TP documentation & Form 3CEB filing requirements even if they opt for the safe harbour rules.


    • Form 3CEFA to be furnished for the initial year to exercise safe harbour option. Option exercised to remain in force for lesser of the period specified in Form 3CEFA or 5 years, unless option held to be invalid or taxpayer opts out.


    • Relatively simplified audit process prescribed for taxpayers opting for safe harbour in respect of eligible transactions


    • Ineligible to invoke MAP if taxpayer’s safe harbour option is accepted


    APA vs Safe harbour rules:


    Concluding Remarks:


    The safe harbour program was intended to reduce the transfer pricing litigation and related compliances. However, the objective was not achieved because of the high margins prescribed for the various industries. Further, the APA program has been successful and the margins agreed in the APA programs have been much conducive and attractive to the taxpayers and thus the results followed. There are expectations from the government that they would shortly revisit the safe harbour and come out with a much better and tax friendly margins on par with the APA and the litigation results.


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