International Business Transactions | Business Tax Lawyer Minneapolis

Despite their apparent diversity and complexity, international business transactions can be grouped into three categories: export of goods and services, licensing and technology transfer and foreign investment transactions.

International Business Transactions: Export of Goods and Services

The first category of international business transactions consists of exports involving a sale of a commodity, manufactured goods or services to a purchaser in a foreign country. Such exports may be done pursuant to a single or series of contracts (first type of export of goods and services) or under a more permanent arrangement (second type of export of goods and services), such as: branch office, sales subsidiary, designated foreign representative, distributor, et cetera.

The first type of exports of goods and services are usually “arms length transactions” whereas the second type often involves related-party transactions. The latter sub-type may often draw the attention of the IRS due to high potential of abuse through tax avoidance measures as well as transfer pricing.

In addition to import tax considerations, exporting goods and services also entails a number of legal considerations and documents, such as the sales contract, insurance, transportation documents (e.g. bill of lading), payment mechanisms (e.g. letters of credit), export and import licenses, et cetera. Even the very establishment of a permanent export structure (franchise, subsidiary, et cetera) may raise an avalanche of legal issues that must be resolved in order for the business structure to work.

International Business Transactions: Licensing and Technology Transfers

The second category of international business transactions involves licensing of intellectual property rights and technology transfers. In reality, the technically-correct classification of international business transactions would place licensing and technology transactions as a variation on the export transactions. However, there are important distinctions between the first and the second categories of international business transactions that justify the classification of licensing and technology transfers as a separate category of international business transactions.

The basic idea behind the licensing and technology transfer transactions is not complex: instead of manufacturing a particular product in its home country and then exporting it to foreign countries, the company that owns the intellectual property rights licenses the actual science and the know-how behind the manufacturing process to a foreign firm so that it can manufacture the goods in the foreign country. In return, the company that owns the IP rights receives either a specified payment or a certain percentage based on annual gross sales or production volume.

The advantage of this type of export transaction is the relative ease with which the owner of IP rights can increase earnings without the need to set up a foreign distribution and services network. Moreover, the costs and risks of such a sales distribution network shift to licensee instead of the owner of the IP rights.

The technology transfer and IP licensing, however, carry significant risks of their own. First of all, there is a significant danger that the foreign licensee will master the new technology to directly compete with the IP owner. We have recently seen such an example with many “clean energy” Chinese companies. Second, there is a risk that the transferred technology may be simply stolen in a country where the IP rights are not property protected. Here, the problem is not only the appearance of an eventual competitor, but also of lost license fees. Finally, the licensee may improperly use the technology and create substandard goods, thereby damaging the reputation of the IP owner.

While these risks may be mitigated with proper business planning, one must be very careful about technology transfers and IP licensing, especially in the industries where technologies and know-how change at a slower pace.

International Business Transactions: Foreign Investment Transactions

The final major type of international business transactions consists of foreign investment transactions. This category, in turn, consists of two sub-categories: direct foreign investments and portfolio foreign investments.

Direct foreign investment usually implies an establishment or acquisition of a production capacity or a permanent enterprise, such as a factory or hotel, in the United States. In the United States, any equity investment of ten percent or more is classified as direct foreign investment. Usually, the foreign investor would directly participate in the management of this enterprise. Of course, the direct foreign investment can be done by a US investor investing directly in a foreign country and a foreign investor investing directly in the United States.

There are two types portfolio foreign investments. The first type consists of investments in debt instructions, such as bonds and debentures. The second type consists of an equity investment in which an investor does not have any management role.

There are many advantages to engaging in foreign investment transactions; I will just point out four such advantages here. First, an investor is investing directly into a foreign enterprise which is considered to be a “local” company, thereby avoiding the complications of exporting goods and services. Second, an acquisition of an already established company with its business network, established workforce and reputation, may facilitate a rapid growth in the sales of the produced goods or services. Third, unlike the first category of international business transactions, the host country may be very interested in a direct foreign investment, because it creates jobs and helps the local economy. Hence, an investor may benefit from government incentives, especially free economic zones which levy low to no tax. Finally, in the case of a portfolio investment, investors have limited exposure due to a diversified portfolio and limited equity stake in a single enterprise.

There may be, however, serious disadvantages to foreign investment transactions; I will mention here only three potential problems. First, a direct foreign investment exposes an investor to potential political and economic changes in the host country. For example, expropriation is a significant risk in South American countries. Second, a direct foreign investment implies an international corporate structure that may be very complex, expensive and require extensive tax and business planning. Finally, a portfolio investor without a management role is at the mercy of the company’s management, which may significantly affect the value of his investment.

International Business Transactions: Hybrid Investments

The classification of international business transactions that I provided above is an ideal one. In reality, hybrid investments (i.e. investments that have the features of more than one category of international business transactions) are widespread. One can easily find examples of portfolio investors who control an enterprise through a management agreement.