Maruti Suzuki India Limited vs. CIT (Delhi High Court)

DATE: December 11, 2015 (Date of pronouncement)
DATE: December 11, 2015 (Date of publication)
AY: 2006-07
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Transfer Pricing: Important legal principles on whether an adjustment for Advertisement & Market Promotion (AMP) expenses can be made on the basis that there is an assumed “international transaction” with the AE because the advertisement expenditure of the Indian company is “excessive” explained

The High Court had to consider the issue of determination of arm’s length price (‘ALP’) of the advertisement, marketing and sales promotion (‘AMP’) expenses incurred by the Assessee, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. The Tribunal followed its decision in LG Electronics India Pvt. Ltd. v. ACIT 2013 22 ITR (Trib) 1 and held that the Assessing Officer (‘AO’) was entitled to make a transfer pricing adjustment under Chapter X of the Act in respect of the AMP expenditure incurred by MSIL on the ground that such expenditure created brand value and marketing intangibles in respect of the brands/trademarks belonging to MSIL’s Associated Enterprise (‘AE’), Suzuki Motor Corporation, Japan (hereinafter ‘SMC’). HELD by the High Court:

(i) The cases which were disposed of in Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications India P. Ltd. v. Commissioner of Income Tax (2015) 374 ITR 118 were of three Assessees, namely, Canon, Reebok and Sony Ericsson who were all distributors of products manufactured by foreign AEs. The said Assessees were themselves not manufacturers. In any event, none of them appeared to have questioned the existence of an international transaction involving the concerned foreign AE. It was also not disputed that the said international transaction of incurring of AMP expenses could be made subject matter of transfer pricing adjustment in terms of Section 92 of the Act. However, in the present appeals, the very existence of an international transaction is in issue. The specific case of MSIL is that the Revenue has failed to show the existence of any agreement, understanding or arrangement between MSIL and SMC regarding the AMP spend of MSIL. It is pointed out that the Bright Line Test (BLT) has been applied to the AMP spend by MSIL to (a) deduce the existence of an international transaction involving SMC and (b) to make a quantitative ‘adjustment’ to the ALP to the extent that the expenditure exceeds the expenditure by comparable entities. It is submitted that with the decision in Sony Ericsson having disapproved of BLT as a legitimate means of determining the ALP of an international transaction involving AMP expenses, the very basis of the Revenue’s case is negated.

(ii) As regards the submission regarding the BLT having been rejected in the decision in Sony Ericsson is concerned, the Court notes that the decision in Sony Ericsson expressly negatived the use of the BLT both as forming the base and determining if there is an international transaction and secondly for the purpose of determining the ALP. Once BLT is negatived, there is no basis on which it can be said in the present case that there is an international transaction as a result of the AMP expenses incurred by MSIL. Although the Revenue seems to contend that the BLT was used only to arrive at the quantum of the TP adjustment, the order of the TPO in the present case proceeds on the basis that an international transaction can be inferred only because the AMP expenses incurred were significantly higher that what was being spent by comparable entities and it was also used for quantifying the amount of the TP adjustment. Consequently, the Court does not agree with the submission of the learned Special counsel for the Revenue that de hors the BLT, which has been rejected in the Sony Ericsson judgment, the existence of an international transaction on account of the incurring of the AMP expenses can be established.

(iii) The submission also proceeds on the basis that since MSIL pays royalty to the foreign AE and makes payment in respect of the use of copyright and patent, the benefit emanating from the AMP function cannot be said to be enjoyed by MSIL alone. It also proceeds on the basis that the benefits to the AE from AMP function would be same as in the case of a distributor namely increase in sale of raw material, increase in royalty, and increase in copyright and patent payments etc. The Court finds that these submissions are not based on any empirical data and proceeds more on the basis of surmises. Royalty payments have been separately assessed for transfer pricing purposes. Likewise, payments for copyrights and patents have also been separately treated.

(iv) As far as the benefit to the AE, i.e. SMC, is concerned, the Revenue has been unable to counter the submission on behalf of the MSIL that by the time SMC acquired a controlling interest in MSIL in 2002, the Maruti brand had already built a huge reputation. A significant amount of AMP expenses had already been incurred by MSIL on its products. These products carried the co-branded mark ‘Maruti-Suzuki’ which had a high degree of name recognition. The Revenue has been unable to dispute that MSIL has the highest market share of automobiles manufactured in India (about 45%) and year on year growth of turnover of about 21%. In other words, the AMP expenses incurred by it have substantially benefitted MSIL.

(v) The second aspect which the Revenue has been unable to dispute is that SMC’s AMP expenditure worldwide has been 7.5% of its sales whereas MSIL is spending only 1.87% of its total sales towards AMP. Therefore, this belies the possibility of any ‘arrangement’ or ‘understanding’ between MSIL and SMC whereby MSIL is obliged to incur the AMP expenditure for and on behalf of SMC.

(vi) The result is that the Revenue has failed to demonstrate the existence of an international transaction only on account of the quantum of AMP expenditure by MSIL. Secondly, the Court is of the view that the decision in Sony Ericsson holding that there is an international transaction as a result of the AMP expenses cannot be held to have answered the issue as far as the present Assessee MSIL is concerned since finding in Sony Ericsson to the above effect is in the context of those Assessees whose cases have been disposed of by that judgment and who did not dispute the existence of an international transaction regarding AMP expenses.

Effect of the earlier decision in the writ petition by MSIL

(vii) This Court in Sony Ericsson proceeded on the basis that the decision of this Court in the writ petition by MSIL was not a binding precedent. Be that as it may, there are other reasons why the earlier decision in the writ petition filed by MSIL cannot be held to survive. A careful reading of the judgment of the Supreme Court reveals that the Supreme Court asked the TPO to proceed with the matter in accordance with law “uninfluenced by the observations/directions given by the judgment in the impugned order dated July 1, 2010.” That virtually nullifies the judgment of the High Court on all aspects. A further reason is that even this Court in disposing of the writ petition of MSIL proceeded on the basis of there being an international transaction only on account of the excessive AMP expenses incurred by MSIL. In other words, this Court disposing of MSIL’s writ petition also applied the BLT to determine the existence of an international transaction whereas throughout it has been MSIL’s case that the fact that its AMP spend is significantly higher cannot ipso facto lead to the conclusion regarding the existence of an international transaction in that regard between MSIL and SMC. With the decision in Sony Ericsson having jettisoned the BLT, the very basis of the judgment of this Court in the writ petition must be held to be no longer binding. In any event, as far as MSIL is concerned, it did question the decision of the Division Bench and succeeded in its appeal in the Supreme Court insofar as the TPO was asked to determine the issue afresh uninfluenced by the order of the High Court.

Is there an international transaction concerning AMP expenses?

(viii) The submission of the Revenue, namely, that: “The mere fact that the service or benefit has been provided by one party to the other would by itself constitute a transaction irrespective of whether the consideration for the same has been paid or remains payable or there is a mutual agreement to not charge any compensation for the service or benefit” is not acceptable. Even if the word ‘transaction’ is given its widest connotation, and need not involve any transfer of money or a written agreement as suggested by the Revenue, and even if resort is had to Section 92F (v) which defines ‘transaction’ to include ‘arrangement’, ‘understanding’ or ‘action in concert’, ‘whether formal or in writing’, it is still incumbent on the Revenue to show the existence of an ‘understanding’ or an ‘arrangement’ or ‘action in concert’ between MSIL and SMC as regards AMP spend for brand promotion. In other words, for both the ‘means’ part and the ‘includes’ part of Section 92B (1) what has to be definitely shown is the existence of transaction whereby MSIL has been obliged to incur AMP of a certain level for SMC for the purposes of promoting the brand of SMC.

(ix) The transfer pricing adjustment is not expected to be made by deducing from the difference between the ‘excessive’ AMP expenditure incurred by the Assessee and the AMP expenditure of a comparable entity that an international transaction exists and then proceed to make the adjustment of the difference in order to determine the value of such AMP expenditure incurred for the AE. And, yet, that is what appears to have been done by the Revenue in the present case. It first arrived at the ‘bright line’ by comparing the AMP expenses incurred by MSIL with the average percentage of the AMP expenses incurred by the comparable entities. Since on applying the BLT, the AMP spend of MSIL was found ‘excessive’ the Revenue deduced the existence of an international transaction. It then added back the excess expenditure as the transfer pricing ‘adjustment’. This runs counter to legal position explained in CIT v. EKL Appliances Ltd. (2012) 345 ITR 241 (Del), which required a TPO “to examine the ‘international transaction’ as he actually finds the same.” In other words the very existence of an international transaction cannot be a matter for inference or surmise.

(x) There is nothing in the Act which indicates how, in the absence of the BLT, one can discern the existence of an international transaction as far as AMP expenditure is concerned. The Court finds considerable merit in the contention of the Assessee that the only TP adjustment authorised and permitted by Chapter X is the substitution of the ALP for the transaction price or the contract price. It bears repetition that each of the methods specified in S.92C (1) is a price discovery method. S.92C (1) thus is explicit that the only manner of effecting a TP adjustment is to substitute the transaction price with the ALP so determined. The second proviso to Section 92C (2) provides a ‘gateway’ by stipulating that if the variation between the ALP and the transaction price does not exceed the specified percentage, no TP adjustment can at all be made. Both Section 92CA, which provides for making a reference to the TPO for computation of the ALP and the manner of the determination of the ALP by the TPO, and Section 92CB which provides for the “safe harbour” rules for determination of the ALP, can be applied only if the TP adjustment involves substitution of the transaction price with the ALP. Rules 10B, 10C and the new Rule 10AB only deal with the determination of the ALP. Thus for the purposes of Chapter X of the Act, what is envisaged is not a quantitative adjustment but only a substitution of the transaction price with the ALP.

(xi) What is clear is that it is the ‘price’ of an international transaction which is required to be adjusted. The very existence of an international transaction cannot be presumed by assigning some price to it and then deducing that since it is not an ALP, an ‘adjustment’ has to be made. The burden is on the Revenue to first show the existence of an international transaction. Next, to ascertain the disclosed ‘price’ of such transaction and thereafter ask whether it is an ALP. If the answer to that is in the negative the TP adjustment should follow. The objective of Chapter X is to make adjustments to the price of an international transaction which the AEs involved may seek to shift from one jurisdiction to another. An ‘assumed’ price cannot form the reason for making an ALP adjustment.

(xii) Since a quantitative adjustment is not permissible for the purposes of a TP adjustment under Chapter X, equally it cannot be permitted in respect of AMP expenses either. As already noticed hereinbefore, what the Revenue has sought to do in the present case is to resort to a quantitative adjustment by first determining whether the AMP spend of the Assessee on application of the BLT, is excessive, thereby evidencing the existence of an international transaction involving the AE. The quantitative determination forms the very basis for the entire TP exercise in the present case.

(xiii) As rightly pointed out by the Assessee, while such quantitative adjustment involved in respect of AMP expenses may be contemplated in the taxing statutes of certain foreign countries like U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand, no provision in Chapter X of the Act contemplates such an adjustment. An AMP TP adjustment to which none of the substantive or procedural provisions of Chapter X of the Act apply, cannot be held to be permitted by Chapter X. In other words, with neither the substantive nor the machinery provisions of Chapter X of the Act being applicable to an AMP TP adjustment, the inevitable conclusion is that Chapter X as a whole, does not permit such an adjustment.

(xiv) It bears repetition that the subject matter of the attempted price adjustment is not the transaction involving the Indian entity and the agencies to whom it is making payments for the AMP expenses. The Revenue is not joining issue, the Court was told, that the Indian entity would be entitled to claim such expenses as revenue expense in terms of Section 37 of the Act. It is not for the Revenue to dictate to an entity how much it should spend on AMP. That would be a business decision of such entity keeping in view its exigencies and its perception of what is best needed to promote its products. The argument of the Revenue, however, is that while such AMP expense may be wholly and exclusively for the benefit of the Indian entity, it also enures to building the brand of the foreign AE for which the foreign AE is obliged to compensate the Indian entity. The burden of the Revenue’s song is this: an Indian entity, whose AMP expense is extraordinary (or ‘non-routine’) ought to be compensated by the foreign AE to whose benefit also such expense enures. The ‘non-routine’ AMP spend is taken to have ‘subsumed’ the portion constituting the ‘compensation’ owed to the Indian entity by the foreign AE. In such a scenario what will be required to be benchmarked is not the AMP expense itself but to what extent the Indian entity must be compensated. That is not within the realm of the provisions of Chapter X.

(xv) The problem with the Revenue’s approach is that it wants every instance of an AMP spend by an Indian entity which happens to use the brand of a foreign AE to be presumed to involve an international transaction. And this, notwithstanding that this is not one of the deemed international transactions listed under the Explanation to Section 92B of the Act. The problem does not stop here. Even if a transaction involving an AMP spend for a foreign AE is able to be located in some agreement, written (for e.g., the sample agreements produced before the Court by the Revenue) or otherwise, how should a TPO proceed to benchmark the portion of such AMP spend that the Indian entity should be compensated for?

(xvi) As an analogy, and for no other purpose, in the context of a domestic transaction involving two or more related parties, reference may be made to Section 40 A (2) (a) under which certain types of expenditure incurred by way of payment to related parties is not deductible where the AO “is of the opinion that such expenditure is excessive or unreasonable having regard to the fair market value of the goods.” In such event, “so much of the expenditure as is so considered by him to be excessive or unreasonable shall not be allowed as a deduction.” The AO in such an instance deploys the ‘best judgment’ assessment as a device to disallow what he considers to be an excessive expenditure. There is no corresponding ‘machinery’ provision in Chapter X which enables an AO to determine what should be the fair ‘compensation’ an Indian entity would be entitled to if it is found that there is an international transaction in that regard. In practical terms, absent a clear statutory guidance, this may encounter further difficulties. The strength of a brand, which could be product specific, may be impacted by numerous other imponderables not limited to the nature of the industry, the geographical peculiarities, economic trends both international and domestic, the consumption patterns, market behaviour and so on. A simplistic approach using one of the modes similar to the ones contemplated by Section 92C may not only be legally impermissible but will lend itself to arbitrariness. What is then needed is a clear statutory scheme encapsulating the legislative policy and mandate which provides the necessary checks against arbitrariness while at the same time addressing the apprehension of tax avoidance. As explained by the Supreme Court in CIT v. B.C. Srinivasa Setty (1979) 128 ITR 294 (SC) and PNB Finance Ltd. vs. CIT (2008) 307 ITR 75 (SC) in the absence of any machinery provision, bringing an imagined international transaction to tax is fraught with the danger of invalidation. In the present case, in the absence of there being an international transaction involving AMP spend with an ascertainable price, neither the substantive nor the machinery provision of Chapter X are applicable to the transfer pricing adjustment exercise.

Economic ownership of the brand

(xvii) The next issue is concerning the economic ownership and legal ownership of the brand. According to the Revenue, viewing legal ownership as something distinct from economic ownership “may not be the right way of looking at things.” The clauses in the agreement between MSIL and SMC indicate that permission was granted by SMC to MSIL to use the co-brand ‘Maruti-Suzuki’ name and logo. The mere fact that the cars manufactured by MSIL bear the symbol ‘S’ is not decisive as the advertisements are of the particular model of the car with the logo ‘Maruti-Suzuki’. The Revenue has been unable to contradict the submission of MSIL that the co-brand mark ‘Maruti-Suzuki’ in fact does not belong to SMC and cannot be used by SMC either in India or anywhere else. The decision in Sony Ericsson requires that the mark or brand should belong to the foreign AE. The Revenue also does not deny that as far as the brand ‘Suzuki’ is concerned its legal ownership vests with the foreign AE i.e. SMC. The Revenue proceeds on the basis that the benefit of the economic ownership also accrues to the foreign AE by way of increased royalty, increased raw material sales, increased brand value etc.

(xviii) The Revenue is proceeding on a presumption regarding the comparative benefits to MSIL and SMC as a result of the AMP expenditure incurred by MSIL. The Revenue is unable to deny that MSIL’s expenditure on AMP is only 1.87% of its total sales whereas SMC’s expenditure worldwide on AMP is 7.5% of its sales. In the circumstances, in the absence of some data, it cannot be simply asserted that the benefit of MSIL’s AMP spend to SMC is not merely incidental. The Court is unable to accept the assertion of the Revenue that the mere fact of incurring AMP expenditure should lead to an inference of the existence of an international transaction.

(xix) The royalty paid to SMC for use of its logo on the product manufactured with its technical knowhow is separately subject to transfer pricing. Likewise, payments for use of patents or copyrights are separately assessed. What the present appeals are concerned with is only the AMP expenditure incurred and nothing more. As pointed out by the Revenue the issue is not about the expenditure incurred by MSIL in engaging Indian third parties for AMP but the extent to which the AMP spend can be attributed to enure to the benefit of SMC’s brand. This can be a complex exercise and in the absence of clear guidance under the statute and the rules, can result in arbitrariness as a result of proceeding on surmises or conjectures. The TPO will need to access data as regards the strength of the foreign AE’s brand and what it commands in the international market and to what extent the presence of the brand in the advertisement actually adds to the benefit of the brand internationally.

MSIL’s higher operating margins

(xx) In Sony Ericsson it was held that if an Indian entity has satisfied the TNMM i.e. the operating margins of the Indian enterprise are much higher than the operating margins of the comparable companies, no further separate adjustment for AMP expenditure was warranted. This is also in consonance with Rule 10B which mandates only arriving at the net profit by comparing the profit and loss account of the tested party with the comparable. As far as MSIL is concerned, its operating profit margin is 11.19% which is higher than that of the comparable companies whose profit margin is 4.04%. Therefore, applying the TNMM method it must be stated that there is no question of TP adjustment on account of AMP expenditure.

Allowable expenditure under Section 37 (1)

(xxi) The decision in Sony Ericsson also holds that “the issue of arm’s length price per se does not arise when deduction under Section 37(1) is claimed.” Further the decision of an Assessee whether or not to incur an expenditure cannot be substituted and disallowed by the AO. In the context of the AMP expenses incurred by manufacturer exclusively for its own business, it is arguable that once such expense is allowed under Section 37(1) of the Act, it cannot be disallowed for the purpose of Chapter X by attributing some part of the said expenditure to promoting the brand of the foreign AE. The key words as far as Section 37(1) is concerned are ‘wholly and exclusively’. However, the Court does not consider it necessary to further dwell on this aspect since it is not required for the answers to the central questions arising in this case.

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