Jeffery Kadet and David Koontz have posted a new paper on SSRN entitled Profit-Shifting Structures and Unexpected Partnership Status, in which they argue that the way US-based MNCs share profits and risks with their global subsidiaries might actually result in their being in partnership with these companies for tax purposes, thus triggering interesting potential US tax consequences for the whole group. Here is the abstract:
Many U.S.- and foreign-based MNCs that have implemented carefully researched tax strategies to reduce their income taxes are coming under increased scrutiny. Most MNC tax strategies involve businesses they conduct worldwide, but which are managed from the U.S. These strategies have several factors in common:
(i) Companies established in tax havens or otherwise structured to attract little if any tax;
(ii) Intercompany agreements placing commercial risk and intangibles in such companies, thereby shifting profits to such companies;
(iii) Conduct of centralized activities and functions in the U.S. (in addition to group senior management), which are integral to and which critically benefit all MNC group members conducting that line of business (examples of such activities include product development, product sourcing, management of contract manufacturing process, management and control of internet platforms, etc.); and
(iv) No significant changes made to their business operations when tax strategies were implemented, meaning potentially that these structures lack economic substance.
This article suggests that in their haste to create these profit-shifting structures, the MNCs and their advisors may have overlooked two important weapons in the IRS’s arsenal to attack profit-shifting strategies.
First, because of the centralized activities and functions within the U.S. that are integral to the business conducted by various group members (including both U.S. and foreign group members), an MNC may inadvertently create through its actions and intercompany contracts a partnership that is recognized solely for U.S. tax purposes. Once such a partnership exists for tax purposes, the various group members become its partners and the partnership conducts the applicable worldwide line of business.
Secondly, because the partnership conducts a portion of its activities through U.S. offices and other facilities, the foreign group member partners are treated by statute as being engaged in a trade or business in the U.S. This makes them subject to U.S. taxation on their share of effectively connected income (ECI) earned by the partnership. U.S. taxation will be imposed at effective rates of 54.5% or higher. (The effective rate could be 38.25% or higher if a tax treaty applies.)
In the absence of a partnership, whether a foreign group member is engaged in a U.S. trade or business is a factual determination that may be difficult for the IRS to establish. However, to their collective detriment, MNCs whose factual situations support the existence of a partnership that conducts such a U.S. trade or business have made it a slam-dunk for the IRS to conclude that the foreign group member partner is so engaged. The U.S. tax rules are clear – if a foreign corporation is a partner in a partnership engaged in a U.S. trade or business, then that partner will be so engaged. All MNCs with this general fact pattern and their auditors should re-examine existing profit shifting structures to determine if they could withstand an IRS charge asserting both the existence of a partnership and taxable ECI.An interesting perspective and worth a read.