Backdating employee stock options accounting and legal implications

The SEC’s opinions regarding backdating and fraud were primarily due to the various tax rules that apply when issuing “in the money” stock options versus the much different – and more financially beneficial – tax rules that apply when issuing “at the money” or "out of the money" stock options.

Additionally, companies can use backdating to produce greater executive incomes without having to report higher expenses to their shareholders, which can lower company earnings and/or cause the company to fall short of earnings predictions and public expectations.

Since the advent of stock option backdating, corporate policies have moved first toward a posture of encouraging backdating as a standard business practice, but then toward a posture of avoidance as public scandals emerged and investigations into fraudulent or dishonest business practices increased despite a commonly held belief that backdating was an acceptable and legal practice.

In the modern business world, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has all but eliminated fraudulent options backdating by requiring companies to report all options issuances within 2 days of the date of issue.

The other major way that backdating can be misleading to investors relates to the method by which the company accounts for the options.

Until very recently, a company that granted stock options to executives at fair market value did not have to recognize the cost of the options as a compensation expense.

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Academic researchers had long been aware of the pattern, exhibited by some companies, of share prices rising dramatically in the days following grants of stock options to senior management.

To avoid having to pay higher taxes, many companies adopted a policy of issuing “at the money” stock options in lieu of additional income, with the idea that the executive or employee would benefit through the option by working to increase the value of the company without exceeding the one million dollar deductibility cap for executive income.

When company executives discovered that they had the ability to backdate stock option grants, thus making them both tax deductible and “in the money” on the date of actual issuance, the common practice of stock option backdating for financial gain began on a widespread level.

Toward the other extreme, where the backdating was a result of overly informal internal procedures or even just delays in finalizing the paperwork documenting options grants, not intentional wrongdoing, there is likely to be no formal sanction—although the company may have to restate its financial statements to bring its accounting into compliance with applicable accounting rules.

With respect to the more serious cases of backdating, it is likely that most of the criminal actions that the government intended to bring were brought in 2007.

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