The role of transfer prices in profit-shifting by U.S. multinational firms: Evidence from the 2004 Homeland Investment Act
Using unique transaction-level microdata, this paper documents profit-shifting behavior by U.S. multinational firms via the strategic transfer pricing of intra-firm trade. A simple model reveals how differences in tax rates, both the corporate tax rates across countries and the dividend repatriation tax rate over time, affect the worldwide profit-maximizing transfer-prices set by firms for intra-firm exports and imports. I test the predictions of the model in the context of the 2004 Homeland Investment Act (HIA), a one-time tax repatriation holiday which generated a discreet change in the incentives for U.S. firms to shift profits to low-tax jurisdictions. Matching individual trade transactions by firm, product, country, mode-of-transport, and month across arms-length and related-party transactions – following Bernard, Jensen, and Schott (2006) – yields a measure of the transfer-price wedge at a point in time. A difference-in-difference strategy reveals that this wedge responds as predicted by the model: In the period following passage of the HIA, the export transfer price wedge increased in low-tax relative to high-tax countries, while the import transfer price wedge exhibited the opposite behavior. Consistent with the form of tax avoidance known as “round-tripping”, the results imply $6 billion USD of under-reported U.S. exports, nearly $7 billion USD of over-reported U.S. imports, and roughly $2 billion USD in foregone U.S. corporate tax receipts.