It's hard to pick up a newspaper these days without reading some story about stock options - when they are granted, how often they are repriced, what portion of an executive's total compensation they represent and so on. What has authorities particularly busy is a fast-expanding review of practices such as option backdating and spring loading. As of December 31, 2006, the Wall Street Journal
counts 120 companies on their option backdate list. Click here
to view the options scorecard and learn about executive departures and various regulatory agency investigations.
The Free Dictionary
defines backdating as "dating any document by a date earlier than the one on which the document was originally drawn up." Spring loading can mean either that "a company purposely schedules an option grant ahead of expected good news or delays it until after it discloses business setbacks likely to send shares lower." See "SEC eyes 'springloading'
" as published by the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants. In both cases, the idea is to inflate the value of the executive's stock option. (Experts remind
that neither backdating nor spring loading is necessarily illegal per se, a conclusion that is best left to attorneys and regulators.)
These and other practices are important to pension fiduciaries and plan participants alike. Defined benefit plans sometimes invest in company stock. Defined contribution plan participants are often given a similar choice. Any problems with option grants, especially when they result in tax and/or accounting penalties, not to mention regulatory enforcement levies or litigation payouts, can do serious harm to an employee's retirement plan. From a fiduciary perspective, real questions could arise about the ex-ante assessment of company stock as a viable investment vehicle for a sponsored plan(s). Did an adequate due diligence review of risk factors that influence company stock price occur? Did pension fiduciaries sufficiently understand existing practices regarding executive compensation, including option awards? How often did pension fiduciaries assess option grant practices and/or inquire about industry norms, internal controls and likely impact on "shareholder" retirement plan participants?
For interested readers, the D&O Diary
, authored by attorney Kevin LaCroix, has an excellent collection of articles about option backdating.
Option valuation is another topic with considerable import. Relatively new accounting rules in the form of FAS 123R
set the stage for a vigorous debate about how to value employee and executive stock options (ESO's). Unlike shorter-term options that actively trade in ready markets, ESO's are more challenging to value for a host of reasons. Though a bit outdated with respect to regulations, readers may nevertheless find my article about option valuation of interest because it highlights the importance of having good inputs and an appropriate model. (Click here
to read "Model Risk and Valuation," Valuation Strategies
, March/April 2003.)
In a recent decision, the SEC notified Zions Bancorporation
that its Employee Stock Option Appreciation Rights Securities (ESOARS) is "sufficiently designed to be used as a market-based approach for valuing employee stock option grants for accounting purposes under Financial Accounting Standards (FAS) No. 123R." According to Zion's press release, it is their intent to assist other public companies in valuing ESOs. I took a quick look at their site
and plan to read more. Certainly a mechanism that facilitates marketability is a step in the right direction. After all, the coming together of willing buyers and sellers, under ideal circumstances, permits a flow of information that should result in the "right" price.
I am currently writing an article about option backdating as it relates to pension fiduciaries.