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State Transfer Pricing Audits Are on the Rise – Here’s How to Protect Your Business 

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Executive Summary 

  • State tax authorities are escalating audits of intercompany transactions, as transfer pricing crackdowns in several states are generating millions in tax revenue. 
  • These state initiatives indicate growing regulatory emphasis on transfer pricing, which may encourage more aggressive audits (especially if budgets tighten). 
  • Companies operating across state borders should take proactive steps, like conducting transfer pricing studies to validate policies and strengthen defenses before audits strike.

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A recent Bloomberg article affirms state tax authorities are ramping up audits of intercompany transactions at multistate corporations. The report points to an increase in audits in three “separate-reporting” states following transfer pricing settlement initiatives as a beacon of audit activity to come across other states that take this approach. 

While not ideal for multistate operators, this development may not come as a surprise to companies with international operations who have dealt with a myriad of cross-border tax issues in recent years. Close observers of state and local tax (SALT) developments have been predicting for many years the potential that states will be adopting similar positions with respect to transfer pricing. In a 2022 article focused on SALT transfer pricing enforcement, we highlighted several key indicators that more state transfer pricing audits could be on the horizon – including state budget deficits, a surge in auditor and consultant hirings, and renewed interest among states in collaborating on multistate audits. 

With confirmation that state-driven transfer pricing audits are on the rise, it is imperative for corporations operating across state borders to assess your transfer pricing risks and fortify your documentation and audit defense strategies. 

Surge of Transfer Pricing Audits in Separate-Reporting States 

According to the Bloomberg Tax report, the recent spike in transfer pricing audit activity has predominantly affected Southeastern states categorized as separate-reporting states. Currently, there are 17 separate-reporting states in the United States. With the exception of a handful of states like Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Delaware, most separate-reporting states are located in the Southeast region. 

How separate-reporting states differ from other states in their taxation approach to corporations: 

  • In separate-reporting states, each corporation within an affiliated group is required to file its individual tax return. This treatment considers them as separate entities with independent income, recognizing intercompany transactions, and allowing for varying tax liabilities.  
  • In contrast, combined-reporting states require or allow affiliated corporations within a corporate group to file a single tax return, treating them as a unitary business with shared income, often eliminating intercompany transactions. 

Notably, two Southeastern states, Louisiana and North Carolina, have recently concluded audit resolution programs that significantly boosted their state revenues. Louisiana's program generated nearly $38 million, while North Carolina's efforts resulted in more than $124 million. Meanwhile, New Jersey, a Mid-Atlantic state that abandoned separate reporting in favor of combined reporting in 2019, is in the midst of a transfer pricing resolution program that has already collected almost $30 million. The success of these programs in collecting tax revenue is likely to motivate other states to explore similar initiatives. 

The success and subsequent expansion of these programs signify a growing emphasis on transfer pricing at the state tax authority level. State tax agencies are enhancing their knowledge and enforcement activities in this domain, giving auditors more confidence to adjust returns in transfer pricing disputes. This increasing competency may be viewed as a valuable tool by states – both those requiring separate and combined reporting – that are seeking ways to augment revenue streams. 

Strengthen Your Transfer Pricing Defenses Before State Audits Strike 

To preemptively safeguard your business from a state transfer pricing audit, a proactive approach to validating pricing policies is essential – and a comprehensive transfer pricing study is your primary defense. 

Here are three key advantages of conducting a transfer pricing study: 

  1. Document Your Transfer Pricing Policy: A transfer pricing study provides robust documentation that can counter inflated tax assessments by identifying key intercompany transactions, referencing benchmark data, and highlighting any deviations that necessitate policy adjustments. Even if your company has undertaken prior studies, annual updates are indispensable to align with evolving business landscapes and provide tax penalty protection. 
  1. Mitigate Your Risk: Beyond reducing audit risks and potential liabilities, these studies also play a pivotal role in supporting major corporate events like mergers and acquisitions (M&A). By demonstrating pricing compliance, they ensure that domestic affiliates have robust documentation and effective cost allocation analysis, thus preventing over-taxation or under-taxation. 
  1. Ensure Consistency: Minimize uncertainty by achieving uniform entity-specific compensation across state agencies and affiliated entities. Swift collaboration with advisors when audits arise enhances dispute resolution capabilities. 

As states continue to gain confidence in challenging transfer pricing, multistate corporations must take proactive measures to ensure the resilience of their intercompany transactions under intensified scrutiny. 

Get Ahead of the Game with a Transfer Pricing Study  

If your company engages in substantial intercompany transactions across state lines, initiating a review of your current pricing policies, preparing your transfer pricing policies, and ensuring compliance with U.S. transfer pricing rules should be a top priority. Proactive measures can help you stay ahead of potential issues before state auditors come knocking. We have a robust transfer pricing team that works closely with our State and Local (SALT) Tax and Tax Controversy practices. Through a combined effort we can support you through every stage of managing a transfer pricing audit. Talk to our transfer pricing professionals today to find out how we can help you minimize your exposure to transfer pricing audits.  

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Tax Guidance IRS Tax Planning Tax Controversy Transfer Pricing State and Local Tax

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