|G. Pavan Kumar (JM), Pramod Kumar (AM)
|associated enterprise, Transfer Pricing
|November 30, 2016 (Date of pronouncement)
|February 6, 2017 (Date of publication)
|Click here to download the file in pdf format
|Transfer Pricing - Meaning of “Associated Enterprises”: The fact that an enterprise can “influence prices and other conditions relating to sale” does not make it an “associated enterprise” of the assessee if it does not participate in the (a) capital, (b) management, or (c) control of the assessee and thus does not fulfil the basic rule u/s 92A(1). S. 92A(2)(i) has to be read with s. 92(A)(1). Even if the conditions of s. 92A(2)(i) are fulfilled, these enterprise cannot be treated as ‘associated enterprise’ if the requirements of s. 92A(1) are not fulfilled
The assessee had a tripartite agreement with Northstar and another non-resident by the name of Actavis Elizabeth LLC, USA (Actavis, in short). Under this arrangement, Northstar was to do distribution channel marketing and distribution arrangement, Activas was to do necessary research and development work and the assessee was to manufacture the products. The distribution channel profit were to be computed in the manner illustrated, but the sharing of distribution channel profit was to be done as follows – Northstar 50%, Activas 25% and the assessee 25%. The Transfer Pricing Officer was of the view that the assessee and its distribution partners (namely Northstar and Activas in this year) were associated enterprises under section 92A(2)(i). The legal provision relied upon provides that “For the purposes of sub-section (1), two enterprises shall be deemed to be associated enterprises if, at any time during the previous year……….(i) the goods or articles manufactured or processed by one enterprise, are sold to the other enterprise or to persons specified by the other enterprise, and the prices and other conditions relating thereto are influenced by such other enterprise”. The Transfer Pricing Officer relied upon the findings of the Settlement Commission, vide order dated 28.3.2012, for the assessment year 2006-07 to 2010-11. This order takes note of the statement of Shri Krishnan, CFO of the assessee company, to the effect that selling prices are determined exclusively by the distribution channel partners and the assessee has no control or influence over the matter. It is also noted that these distribution channel partners exercise substantial control, in the form of management committees and executive committees etc. inasmuch as even sourcing of raw material is subject to approval by such committees. This influence is not only on the existing products but also on what products the assessee is to develop in future. It is in the background of these observations that the Settlement Commission held that the assessee and the distribution partners, including Northstar, were associated enterprises. The TPO’s stand was upheld by the DRP. On appeal by the assessee to the Tribunal HELD allowing the appeal:
(i) We may, at this stage, take note of decision of a coordinate bench of this Tribunal, in the case of Page Industries Limited Vs DCIT [(2016) 159 ITD 680 (Bang)]. That is a case in which the coordinate bench has held that even though the provisions of Section 92A(2)(g) are satisfied in a case, the assessee cannot be treated as an associate enterprise of the non resident company granting it licence to manufacture its products, because the provisions of Section 92A(1) are not satisfied.
(ii) As evident from the limited narration of facts in the said decision, the assessee-company (i.e. Page Industries Ltd; PIL in short) was “a licensee of the brand- name ‘Jockey’ for exclusive manufacture and marketing of goods under license agreement” but “the assessee-company owns entire manufacturing facility, capital investment of Rs.100 crores and 15000 employees” and “there is no participation of JII (i.e. Jockey International Inc., USA) in the capital and management of the assessee-company”. On these facts, the coordinate bench has held that JII and PIL are not associated enterprises as there is no participation by JII in “management or capital of PIL(emphasis supplied by us)”. We have our reservation, whatever be it’s worth, on the conclusions arrived at in this case but that does not dilute our highest respect for an important principles of law laid down by the coordinate bench. The reasons for this approach are as follows. The expression ‘control’ appearing in Section 92A(1) is very crucial and the manner in which control is exercised could go well beyond capital and management, but the coordinate bench had no occasion to deal with the “control” aspect at all. As held in the case of Diageo India Pvt Ltd Vs DCIT [(2011) 47 SOT 252 (Mum)], even when an enterprise exercise control over the other enterprises by way of controlling the supply of raw material or use of trade marks, this also constitutes ‘participation in control’ leading to the status of associated enterprises under section 92A(1). It appears that this aspect of the matter has not been brought to the notice of, or pleaded before, the bench. While the conclusion arrived at by the bench clearly overlooks the specific mention of the word “control” in both limbs of the basic rule under section 92A(1) (i) as also under section 92A(1)(ii), and to that extent we are unable to concur that in the absence of participation in capital or management, two enterprises cannot be ‘associated enterprises’ under section 92A, what is important to us is that the coordinate bench has, inter alia, also held that, “….in order to constitute relationship of an AE, the parameters laid down in both sub sections (1) and (2) should be fulfilled” and justified this approach by observing that “if we were to hold that there is a relationship of AE, once the requirements of sub-sec.(2) are fulfilled, then the provisions of sub-sec.(1) renders otiose or superfluous” and that “it is well settled canon interpretation of statutes that while interpreting the taxing statute, construction shall not be adopted which renders particular provision otiose”. The coordinate bench then further observed that “when interpreting a provision in a taxing statute, a construction, which would preserve the purpose of the provision, must be adopted”. The legal position thus summed up by the coordinate bench is that in a situation in which the conditions, with respect to a set of enterprises, set out in section 92A(1) are clearly not fulfilled, even if the conditions under one of the clauses of section 92A(2) are fulfilled, such enterprises cannot be treated as associated enterprise under section 92A. To the limited extent of the principle so laid down by the coordinate bench, we are in considered agreement with the views of the coordinate bench, and it is this principle which is relevant for the purposes of our adjudication. It does directly affect the issue in appeal before us inasmuch as we are also dealing with a situation in which admittedly words of section 92A(2)(i) are clearly satisfied on the facts of this case, the scale of commercial relationship is so insignificant vis-à-vis total business operations of the assessee that there is admittedly no participation in control by one of the enterprise over the other enterprise so as to satisfy the mandate of Section 92A(1).
(ii) While the observations made by Dr Ramon Dwarkasing, an Associate Professor in Transfer Pricing at Maastricht University, the Netherlands, in his book “Associated Enterprises- A Concept Essential for Application of the Arm’s Length Principle” [ISBN: 978-90-81724-0-1, published by Wolf Legal Publishers, the Netherlands @ page 6], do seem to be at variance with the plain words of the statutory provision inasmuch as it refers to influence by way of “strong negotiating power” rather than an influence simplictor- as is the apparent scheme of the statutory provision, what is immediately discernible from the above extracts is that the ‘de facto’ control is the foundation of the wider approach to the concept of ‘associated enterprises, and, of course, the impression that one of the ways in which use of expression ‘influence’, in concept of associated enterprises under the transfer pricing, can be rationalized is as dominant influence in the nature of de facto control. The definition of ‘associated enterprise’, as the above academic analysis shows, has two approaches- wider approach and narrow approach. A narrow approach to the concept of associated enterprises takes into account only “de jure” association i.e. though formal participation in the capital or participation in the management. A wider approach to the concept of ‘associated enterprises’ takes into account not only the de jure relationships but also de facto control, in the absence of participation in capital or participation in management, through other modes of control such as commercial relationships in which one has dominant influence over the other. This wider concept is clearly discernible from the principles underlying approach to the definition of ‘associated enterprises’ in the tax treaties and has also been adopted by the transfer pricing legislation in India in an unambiguous manner. There is no other justification in the Indian transfer pricing legislation, except the participation in capital of an enterprise, management of an enterprise or control of an enterprise, which can lead to the relationship between enterprise being treated as ‘associated enterprises’. What essentially follows is that clause (i) of Section 92A(2) has, at its conceptual foundation, de facto control by one of the enterprise over the other enterprise, on account of commercial relationship of its buying the products, either on his own or through any nominated entities, from such other enterprise and in a situation in which it can influence the prices and other related conditions. The wordings of clause (i), however, do not reflect this position in an unambiguous manner inasmuch as it does not set out a threshold of activity, giving de facto control to the other enterprise engaged in such commercial activity, in percentage terms or otherwise- as is set out in clause (g) and (h) or, for that purpose, in all other operative clauses of Section 92A(2). If the words of this clause are to be interpreted literally, as the authorities below have read, even if there is one isolated transaction with an enterprise in such an enterprise can influence the prices, such an enterprise is to be treated as an associated enterprise- whether or not this commercial relationship amounts to control on the other enterprise. That will clearly be an incongruous result. However, as Section 92A(2)(i) is to be read alongwith Section 92(A)(1), in such a situation in which an enterprise does not participate in (a) capital, (b) management, or (c) control of other enterprise, and thus does not fulfil the basic rule under section 92A(1), even if the conditions of Section 92A(2)(i) are fulfilled, these enterprise cannot be treated as ‘associated enterprise’. In the case before us, it is not even the case of the revenue that the assessee has any participation in management or capital of the other enterprise, nor there is anything to even remotely indicate, much less establish, that one of the enterprise, by way of this commercial relationship, participates in control over the other enterprise. Viewed thus, Northstar, even if it is assumed that it can influence prices and other conditions relating to sale, cannot be treated as associated enterprise of the assessee before us. It is also important to bear in mind the fact that given the context in which the expression “prices and other conditions relating thereto are influenced by such other enterprise” appears in Section 92A(2)(i), this influence has to be something more than influence in the ordinary course of business and in the process of negotiation, because, even in the course of ordinary every business and in the course of day to day negotiation, selling prices as also conditions of sale are invariably, in a way, influenced by the buyer. Therefore, even when a customer offers terms to someone with a ‘take it or leave it’ message, such an approach, by itself, cannot be termed as ‘influence’, for our purposes, unless the seller is in such a position and under such an influence that he has to simply accept the dictated terms. Any other view of the matter will result in all the enterprises dealing with each other as every party to a transaction has an influence over the price and conditions relating to the sale, and will lead to a situation in which all the enterprises dealing with each other on negotiated prices will have to be as associated enterprises. That again is a clearly absurd and unintended result, and it is only elementary that law is to be interpreted in such a manner as to make it workable rather than redundant. This principle is expressed in the latin maxim “ut res magis valeat quam pereat”. Explaining this principle, Hon’ble Supreme Court has, in the case of CIT Vs Hindustan Bulk Carriers [(2003) 259 ITR 449 (SC)], has observed that “A construction which reduces the statute to a futility has to be avoided” and that “A statute or any enacting provision therein must be so construed as to make it effective and operative on the principle expressed in maxim utres magis valeat quam pereat i.e., a liberal construction should be put upon written instruments, so as to uphold them, if possible, and carry into effect the intention of the parties. [See Broom’s Legal Maxims (10th Edition), p. 361, Craies on Statutes (7th Edition) p. 95 and Maxwell on Statutes (11th Edition) p. 221.]” It is, therefore, important that the expression ‘influence’ is given a sensible meaning so as to make the provisions of Section 92A(2)(i) workable rather than adopting a literal meaning which will lead to wholly incongruous results.
(iii) Viewed in this perspective, we must adopt a sensible meaning of expression ‘influence’ which advances the scheme of the transfer pricing provisions rather than making these provisions unworkable. That meaning had to be a dominant influence which leads to de facto control over the other enterprise rather than an influence simplictor. If we are to adopt literal meaning of influence, as has been adopted by the authorities below, all the transactions on negotiated prices will be hit by the provisions of Section 92A(2)(i). In the light of the discussions above, the expression ‘influence’, in the present context, must remain confined to dominant influence which amounts to de facto control. Acceptance of terms of the buyer on commercial considerations, as in this case, cannot be treated as influence of the buyer. It is a commercial decision whether to accept the terms of the buyer, with respect to the price or related conditions, or not. It becomes influence, for the purpose of Section 92A(2)(i), when the seller is placed in such a situation that he has no choice, because of buyer’s dominant influence, but to accept it. It is thus clear that context in which a reference is made to the expression ‘influence’ in section 92A(2)(i) requires this expression to be read as a dominant influence in the sense of control by one enterprise over the other. Given the fact that the assessee’s exports through the distribution part constitutes less than 5% of its entire exports, and less than 6% of its entire sales, Northstar is certainly not in a position to exercise any dominant influence, over the assessee. The assessee’s decision to accept the terms set out by Northstar, even if that be so, may be justified on account of commercial expediencies or warranted by business exigencies or may simply be compulsion of this somewhat unique and complex business model, but it cannot, by any stretch of logic, be on account of dominant influence of Northstar as a customer. It may even be a sound business strategy to accept a rather passive and back seat role, if one can term it that way, in day to day decision making under this business model, but cannot be on account of dominant influence that Northstar exercises on buying of products from the assessee. The influence of Northstar, given the scale of business through Norrthstar as a distribution part, is too modest to make it a dominant influence in the nature of control. In this view of the matter, as also bearing in mind the earlier discussions on the issue, the assessee and Northstar can not be treated as ‘associated enterprises’ under section 92 A. We uphold the plea of the assessee.