Understanding the Comparable Uncontrolled Price (CUP) Method in Transfer Pricing

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The Comparable Uncontrolled Price (CUP) Method is one of the primary transfer pricing methods used to determine arm’s length prices for transactions between related entities. When sufficient data is available, it is considered the most direct and reliable way to apply the arm’s length principle. 

What is the Comparable Uncontrolled Price (CUP) Method?

The CUP method compares the price charged for property or services transferred in a controlled transaction to those charged for comparable property or services in an uncontrolled transaction under similar circumstances. It is one of the five transfer pricing methods recommended by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is widely accepted by tax authorities worldwide.

There are two types of CUP methods:

  1. Internal CUP: The internal CUP method involves using comparable transactions within the same company. For instance, if a company sells a product to both related and unrelated parties, the price charged to the unrelated parties can serve as a benchmark for the related transactions. An example would be a car rental company using the same brand licensing fees charged to third parties as a basis for fees charged to its subsidiaries​.
  2. External CUP: The external CUP method compares the controlled transaction with transactions between two independent entities. For example, if a company has no internal comparable transactions, it can look at similar transactions in the market between unrelated parties. A diamond company, for instance, could compare its transactions with those of independent diamond sellers to determine an appropriate transfer price.

How to Apply the CUP Method

To apply the CUP method effectively, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the controlled transaction to be analyzed.
  2. Find comparable uncontrolled transactions.
  3. Determine if adjustments are needed to account for differences.
  4. Apply adjustments if necessary.
  5. Compare the prices and determine the arm’s length range.

Comparability Factors

When applying the CUP method, it’s crucial to consider the following comparability factors:

  1. Product characteristics
  2. Contractual terms
  3. Economic circumstances
  4. Business strategies
  5. Functional analysis (functions performed, risks assumed, and assets used)

Examples of the CUP Method in Practice

Example 1: Internal CUP Method


A company manufactures industrial equipment and sells its products to both unrelated third-party customers and its subsidiaries. Let’s consider that the company produces a specific type of machinery part, the “X500 Gear.”

Internal Comparable Transactions

The company sells the X500 Gear to unrelated third-party distributors at a price of $500 per unit for orders of 1,000 units or more. These transactions are regular and well-documented, providing a clear benchmark for comparison.

Application of Internal CUP

To apply the internal CUP method, the company needs to use the $500 per unit price as a benchmark for sales to its subsidiaries. If a subsidiary places an order for 1,000 units, the same price of $500 per unit should be applied. This ensures that the price charged to the subsidiary is at arm’s length, reflecting the market conditions as seen in transactions with unrelated third parties.

Adjustments and Considerations

In this scenario, payment terms, delivery conditions, and volume discounts must be identical or sufficiently adjusted to ensure comparability. For example, if the third-party transactions include a 30-day payment term and free delivery, the same conditions should apply to the subsidiary transactions. If there are differences, appropriate adjustments must be made to reflect these variances accurately​​.

Example 2: External CUP Method


A diamond mining company, “Gemstones Inc.,” sells diamonds to its subsidiary in another country. However, Gemstones Inc. does not have any comparable internal transactions because it exclusively deals with related entities.

External Comparable Transactions

Gemstones Inc. identifies transactions between independent diamond sellers to determine the transfer price. For instance, two independent companies, “Diamond Traders Ltd.” and “Precious Stones Co.,” have recently engaged in similar transactions. Diamond Traders Ltd. sells a particular grade of diamonds at $1,000 per carat to Precious Stones Co. under conditions similar to those between Gemstones Inc. and its subsidiary.

Application of External CUP

Gemstones Inc. uses the $1,000 per carat price from the independent transaction as a benchmark for its sales to the subsidiary. Assuming the diamonds are of comparable quality and quantity and the transaction conditions (e.g., delivery terms, payment period) are similar, this external transaction provides a reliable benchmark.

Adjustments and Considerations

If there are any differences, such as the size of the diamond shipments or specific contractual terms, Gemstones Inc. must make adjustments to align these differences. For example, if the independent transaction involves a bulk discount for larger quantities, similar discounts should be considered for the subsidiary if the order size matches​.

Example 3: Internal and External CUP Combination


A multinational corporation, AutoTech Ltd., sells a specialized car part, the Turbo X200, to its subsidiaries and unrelated companies. The Turbo X200 is a high-demand product used in various automotive applications.

Internal Comparable Transactions

AutoTech Ltd. sells the Turbo X200 to unrelated third-party customers at $150 per unit for orders exceeding 500 units. These transactions occur frequently and provide a solid basis for comparison.

External Comparable Transactions

Additionally, AutoTech Ltd. reviews market data and finds that similar car parts from competitors, such as “SpeedParts Inc.,” are sold to unrelated parties at $155 per unit under similar conditions.

Application of Combined CUP Method

Using both internal and external comparables, AutoTech Ltd. determines that the appropriate transfer price for sales to its subsidiary should be within the $150 to $155 per unit range. By analyzing both sets of data, AutoTech Ltd. ensures a robust and defensible transfer pricing strategy.

Adjustments and Considerations

In this combined approach, AutoTech Ltd. must ensure that any differences between the internal and external transactions are accounted for. For instance, if the subsidiary receives a longer credit period than third-party customers, an adjustment must be made to reflect this difference. Similarly, any variations in warranty terms or delivery schedules between internal and external transactions should be adjusted accordingly​.

Advantages of the CUP Method

  1. Most direct and reliable method when comparable data is available
  2. Preferred by many tax authorities
  3. Relatively simple to apply and understand
  4. Suitable for commodity transactions with quoted market prices

Limitations and Challenges

  1. Difficulty in finding truly comparable uncontrolled transactions
  2. Sensitivity to product and transaction differences
  3. May require significant adjustments to account for differences
  4. Limited applicability for unique or highly specialized products/services

When to Use the CUP Method

The CUP method is most appropriate in the following situations:

  1. Transactions involving commodities with quoted market prices
  2. Simple manufacturing or distribution arrangements
  3. Licensing of standard intangible property
  4. Intercompany loans and financial transactions

CUP Method and Transfer Pricing Documentation

When using the CUP method, it’s essential to maintain robust transfer pricing documentation that includes:

  1. Detailed description of the controlled transaction
  2. Explanation of the comparability analysis
  3. Information on the selected comparable transactions
  4. Details of any adjustments made and their rationale
  5. Conclusion on the arm’s length nature of the transaction

The Importance of Professional Guidance

While the CUP method can be straightforward in some cases, its application often requires expertise in transfer pricing regulations, economic analysis, and industry-specific knowledge. Consulting with transfer pricing specialists can provide several benefits:

  1. Ensuring compliance with local and international transfer pricing regulations
  2. Identifying the most appropriate comparable transactions
  3. Performing accurate comparability adjustments
  4. Developing robust transfer pricing documentation
  5. Defending transfer pricing positions in case of tax audits

In Closing

The Comparable Uncontrolled Price (CUP) method is a valuable tool in transfer pricing analysis, offering a direct approach to determining arm’s length prices. However, its effective application requires careful consideration of comparability factors, potential adjustments, and thorough documentation. By understanding the nuances of the CUP method and seeking professional guidance when needed, multinational enterprises can ensure compliance with transfer pricing regulations and mitigate potential tax risks.


  1. OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and Tax Administrations 2022
  2. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – Transfer Pricing Methods
  3. PwC – Transfer Pricing Perspectives: Comparable Uncontrolled Price method
  4. Deloitte – Transfer Pricing Methods
  5. EY – Worldwide Transfer Pricing Reference Guide
  6. KPMG – Global Transfer Pricing Review
  7. United Nations Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing for Developing Countries
  8. World Bank Group – Transfer Pricing and Developing Economies: A Handbook for Policy Makers and Practitioners
  9. International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation (IBFD) – Transfer Pricing Database
  10. Tax Justice Network – Transfer Pricing

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