Backdating option stock
The stock plans of many public companies prohibit the granting of below-market options; other companies disclose in their SEC reports that stock options are granted at market and prepare their financial statements on that basis.
Adverse tax consequences may result from option backdating practices.An option granted at less than fair market value will not qualify as an incentive stock option and therefore generally will be subject to income tax and withholding requirements upon exercise of the option.An option granted at less than fair market value will also not qualify as “performance based compensation” and thus must count toward the $1 million executive compensation deduction cap under Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code.This problem occurs most often when boards or committees act by unanimous written consent but there is a delay in the receipt of all of the signed consents.Even though no documents are backdated and there may be no intent to select a lower exercise price, backdating issues may arise if the stock price increases before the corporate formalities have been completed.Finally, an option granted at less than fair market value that either vests in whole or in part after December 31, 2004 or granted or modified after October 3, 2004 raises issues under the new deferred compensation rules set forth in Section 409A of the Code.
Under Section 409A, the recipient could be subject to acceleration of taxable income and additional taxes and penalties, and the company could be subject to special tax withholding and reporting requirements.
If the compensation expense is not properly reflected in earnings, the company’s financial statements will be inaccurate and restatement of the financials may be required.
The discovery of past backdating practices may raise issues as to the adequacy of the company’s internal controls and disclosure controls and procedures.
SEC Chairman Christopher Cox recently stated that the proposed SEC rules on disclosure of executive compensation will “almost certainly address options backdating explicitly.” I. Companies have considerable discretion in determining the timing of stock option awards.
Most employee stock options are, or purport to be, granted “at-the-money,” meaning that the exercise price of the option equals the market price of the underlying stock on the date of the grant.
In its most basic form, backdating can range from the blatant falsification of a document to take advantage of a lower stock price to allowing executives to select a grant date during a specified period, for example during the 30 days after the grant is approved by the board or committee.