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5.9 Transfer Pricing

The profit center model treats a corporate division as if it were an autonomous business within a business. However, often the reason for having multiple divisions in an enterprise is because there is vertical integration, meaning that some divisions are providing goods and services to other divisions in the enterprise. If the two divisions in an exchange are to be treated as if they were separate businesses, what price should be charged by the supplying division? Even if there is no actual cash being tendered by the acquiring division, some measurement of value for the exchange is needed to serve as the revenue for the selling division and the cost for the acquiring division. The established value assigned to the exchanged item is called a transfer priceThe established value assigned to an item exchanged between a selling division and an acquiring division of the same corporation..

One possibility for establishing a transfer price is for the two divisions to negotiate a price as they would if they were indeed independent businesses. Unfortunately, this approach sacrifices one of the benefits of vertical integration—namely, the avoidance of the transaction costs that are incurred on external changes—without avoiding all the internal transaction costs.

Another approach to the problem of pricing interdivision exchanges is to base prices on principles rather than negotiation. Academic research has concluded a number of principles for different kinds of situations. In this section, we will limit our consideration to two of these situations.

Suppose two divisions in an enterprise, Division A and Division B, exchange a good that is only produced by Division A. More specifically, there is no other division either inside or outside the enterprise that currently produces the good. Division B is the only user of this good, either inside or outside of the enterprise. Under these conditions, theoretically the best transfer price is the marginal cost of the good incurred by Division A.

No formal proof of this principle will be offered here, but a brief defense of this principle would be as follows: Suppose the price charged was less than the marginal cost. If Division A decides on the production volume that would maximize its internal divisional profit, then by reducing its volume somewhat, Division A would avoid more cost than it loses in forgone transfer revenue. So Division A would elect to provide fewer units than Division B would want.

On the other hand, suppose the transfer price was set at a level higher than the marginal cost. Since the transfer cost becomes a component of cost to receiving Division B, in determining its optimal volume of production, Division B will see a higher marginal cost than is actually the case (or would be the case if Divisions A and B functioned as a single unit). As a result, Division B may decide on a production level that is not optimal for the overall enterprise. By setting the transfer price equal to Division A’s marginal cost, the decision by Division B should be the same as it would be if the two divisions operated as one.

Although the principle is reasonably clear and defensible in theory, the participating divisions in an actual setting may raise objections. If the average cost of the item to Division A is less than the marginal cost, Division B may complain that they should not need to pay a transfer price above the average cost because that is what the actual cost per item is to Division A and the enterprise overall. If the average cost per item exceeds the marginal cost, Division A may complain that setting the transfer price to the marginal cost requires their division to operate at a loss for this item and they should be credited with at least the average cost. Nonetheless, the best decisions by Divisions A and B for the overall profit of the enterprise will occur when the transfer price is based on the marginal cost to Division A in this situation.

As a second case situation, suppose the good transferred from Division A to Division B is a good that is both produced and consumed outside the enterprise and there is a highly competitive market for both buyers and sellers. In this instance the best internal transfer price between Division A and Division B would be the external market price.

A supporting argument for this principle is this: If the transfer price were higher than the outside market price, Division B could reduce its costs by purchasing the good in the outside market rather than obtaining it from Division A. If the outside market price were higher than the set transfer price, Division A would make higher divisional profit by selling the good on the outside market than by transferring it to Division B.