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Stock Options: The Backdating Issue

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Abstract:

Employee stock options are contracts giving employees the right to buy the company's common stock at a specified exercise price, at a specified time or during a specified period, and after a specified vesting period. The value of the option when granted lies in the prospect that the market price of the company's stock will increase by the time the option is exercised (used to purchase stock). At the grant date for the options, rather than selecting an exercise price based on the current market price for the stock, officials at some companies have selected a prior date with a lower market price; that is, they backdated stock options to an earlier grant date. If this backdating occurred without public disclosure, the recipient of the stock options received increased compensation in violation of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations, generally accepted accounting rules, and tax laws. Some backdating is said to involve "sloppiness," not fraud. The backdating of stock options has imposed costs on shareholders, employees, bondholders, and taxpayers.

Approximately 200 companies are under federal investigation for backdating and/or have restated earnings. One study found that shareholders in 110 companies involved in the backdating scandal have lost at least $100 billion. A corporate official who has profited from undisclosed backdating of stock options may not be responsible or even knowledgeable of the backdating. "Nonqualified" stock options, which have no special tax criteria to meet, are the focus of the backdating controversy primarily because they can be granted in unlimited amounts.

The magnitude of stock option grants grew dramatically in the 1990s, subsequent to passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, a stock market boom, and revised accounting rules. Recent corporate disclosure changes have reduced the opportunities and rewards for backdating stock options. Empirical studies about backdating have been done by academics and investigative journalists.

Four recent regulatory actions may have reduced the backdating of stock options, but problems persist. On December 16, 2004, the Financial Accounting Standards Board issued new rules requiring companies to subtract the expense of options from their earnings. After August 29, 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act required that companies notify the SEC within two business days after granting stock options. In 2003, the SEC required increased disclosure of stock option plans. The SEC issued enhanced option grant disclosure rules effective December 15, 2006. Corporate boards, corporate compensation committees, outside auditors, and the SEC are general protectors of investors' interests and are embodied in current backdating developments.

Policy options to further reduce backdating and other timing manipulation include changes in SEC regulations and a change in the tax law. Possible benefits of a policy option may be weighed against its administrative and compliance costs.

This report will be updated as issues develop, new legislation is introduced, or as otherwise warranted.

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