First Case to Try to Link ERISA with Option Backdating

In "Test case looms on backdating" (June 1, 2007), FEI journalists Jeffrey Marshall and Ellen Heffes write that a legal precedent may soon be set in the form of a class action case against builder KB Home. Many managers and board members who participated in backdating decisions and also act as company fiduciaries for the 401(k) plan are named in the lawsuit. Alleging ERISA fiduciary breach due to the backdating of stock options, plan sponsors and their attorneys await the outcome.

"If this case survives summary judgment, plaintiff's attorneys will be emboldened and bring more employees onto the class-action backdating bandwagon," suggests attorney John Gamble, with Fisher & Phillips, a labor and employment law firm. Marshall and Heffes caution that a post-Enron amendment of ERISA  increases punishment. "Individuals who are caught willfully violating ERISA face 10 years in prison and fines up to $100,000."

A few months ago, I predicted an ERISA litigation fallout if companies recommend stock for the 401(k) plan yet do not properly vet the process by which executives receive options. Click here to read "Will Executive Option Issues Drive the Next Wave of Pension Litigation?" by Susan M. Mangiero (Journal of Compensation and Benefits, March/April 2007).

This case is sure to attract attention.

Big Apple Pension to Bite Apple Inc Over Options

Alleging questionable stock option practices at technology giant Apple Inc, the New York City Employees' Retirement System ("NYCERS") will serve as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed a few months ago. Citing the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PSLRA"), NYCERS claims the largest financial interest in the lawsuit. (Click here to read the original filing and here to read "Recent Developments Under the PSLRA.")

According to Reuters (January 22, 2007), the NY fund's ownership stake is roughly one million shares or about $87 million in current value terms. Its 2006 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report shows $46.34177 billion as plan net assets as of June 30, 2006. While NYCERS equity exposure to Apple is large in absolute terms, it is small compared to the equity interests held by institutional investors such as Fidelity Management & Research (60,316,011 shares as of September 30, 2006) or AllianceBernstein L.P. (48,637,731 shares in second place). Click here to review ownership statistics, courtesy of Thomson Financial (and reprinted by the Wall Street Journal.)

The intent of this post is not to single out any one company nor to imply that the filing of a complaint supports any or all of the allegations. That's for the trier of fact to determine. What is important is to understand that executive compensation practices can (and often do) impact shareholder value. If the market interprets a particular practice as far removed from economic reality and/or regulators start sniffing around, defined benefit and defined contribution participants stand to lose a bundle. In order to reduce the likelihood of an adverse outcome due to investing in company stock, pension fiduciaries must carefully consider relevant risk factors. That includes the percentage of company stock already part of a particular plan (whether self-directed or not). See "Options, Pensions and the SEC" for additional comments about backdating and pension fiduciary duty.

With more than 120 companies being asked questions about their respective option practices, there is surely much more to say on this topic!

Options, Pensions and the SEC

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.

Editor's Note:
I am currently writing an article about option backdating as it relates to pension fiduciaries.