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The Trouble With Stock Options

October 3, 2023
Bill Kimball

An employer may grant you 1,000 shares on the grant date, for example, with 250 shares vesting one year later. That means you have the right to exercise 250 of the 1,000 shares initially granted. That’s when the employee no longer has the right to purchase company stock under the terms of the agreement. Non-qualified stock options are granted to employees, advisors, and consultants; incentive stock options are for employees only. The grantee or optionee is not faced with an immediate tax liability when the options are granted by the company.

management stock options

There is no obligation for the employee to exercise the option, in which case the option will lapse. In regard to the first of these aims – attraction — Hall and Murphy note that companies paying options in lieu of cash effectively are borrowing from employees, receiving their services today in return for payouts in the future. But risk-averse undiversified employees are not likely to be efficient sources of capital, especially compared to banks, private equity funds, venture capitalists, and other investors. By the same token, paying options in lieu of cash compensation affects the type of employees the company will attract. Options may well draw highly motivated and entrepreneurial types, but this can benefit a company’s stock value only if those employees- that is, top executives and other key figures — are in positions to boost the stock. The vast majority of lower-level employees being offered options can have only a minor affect on the stock price.

Early Or Premature Exercise

The value of options declines as the expiration date approaches, a phenomenon known as time decay, but this time decay is not linear in nature and accelerates close to option expiry. An option that is far out-of-the-money will decay faster than an option that is at the money because the probability of the former being profitable is much lower than that of the latter.

Of these strategies, writing calls is the only one where you can offset the erosion of time value in your ESOs by getting time decay working in your favor. Buying puts aggravates the issue of time decay but is a good strategy to hedge downside risk, while the costless collar has minimal cost but does not resolve the issue of ESO time decay. Time value depends on the amount of time remaining until expiration and several other variables. Given that most ESOs have a stated expiration date of up to 10 years from the date of option grant, their time value can be quite significant. While time value can be easily calculated for exchange-traded options, it is more challenging to calculate time value for non-traded options like ESOs, since a market price is not available for them. If you don’t exercise your 25% vested ESOs after year one, you would have a cumulative increase in exercisable options. If you do not exercise any of ESOs options in the first four years, you would have 100% of the ESOs vested after that period, which you can then exercise in full or in part.

An employee stock option is a grant to an employee giving the right to buy a certain number of shares in the company’s stock for a set price. When you subsequently sell the shares, any further increase in the sale price is subject to the more favorable capital gains rate. Suppose they rose in value to $55 a share when you sold them two years later. You’d pay the long-term capital gains rate on $25 per share (though you’d pay the higher short-term rate if you sold them within a year of their purchase). The spread is also known as the bargain element in tax parlance, and is taxed at ordinary income tax rates because the IRS considers it as part of the employee’s compensation. ESOs typically vest in chunks over time at predetermined dates, as set out in the vesting schedule.

Receiving Stock

Meta closed at $175.13 on Nov. 29, 2017, at which time the longest-dated options available on the stock were the January 2020 calls and puts. When an ESO is granted, it has a hypothetical value that—because it is an at-the-money option—is pure time value. This time value decays at a rate known as theta, which is a square root function of time remaining. With ESOs, the exact details about when they expire may differ from one company to the next. Also, as there is no automatic exercise feature with ESOs, you have to notify your employer if you wish to exercise your options. Stock options can result in egregious compensation of executive for mediocre business results. This allows a potentially large form of employee compensation to not show up as an expense in the current year, and therefore, currently overstate income.

management stock options

Employee stock options is a label that refers to compensation contracts between an employer and an employee that carries some characteristics of financial options. The stock market can be an intimidating arena for people who haven’t tested the waters before.

Trading Oex Options: The Risk Of Early Exercise

Companies typically issue a grant of options or RSUs when you first sign a job offer. For both measures, the link between pay and performance has increased nearly tenfold since 1980. While there are many reasons American companies have flourished over the last two decades, it’s no coincidence that the boom has come in the wake of the shift in executive pay from cash to equity. In stark contrast to the situation 20 years ago, when most executives tended to be paid like bureaucrats and act like bureaucrats, today’s executives are much more likely to be paid like owners and act like owners. A statutory stock option is a type of tax-advantaged employee stock option offered to employers by employees. Employee stock options can be a valuable part of your compensation package, especially if you work for a company whose stock has been soaring of late.

  • ESOs are a form of equity compensation granted by companies to their employees and executives.
  • If pay is truly to be linked to performance, it’s not enough to deliver rewards when results are good.
  • The spread is also known as the bargain element in tax parlance, and is taxed at ordinary income tax rates because the IRS considers it as part of the employee’s compensation.
  • Qualifying disposition refers to a sale, transfer, or exchange of stock that qualifies for favorable tax treatment.
  • His options are now so far under water that they are nearly worthless.
  • We reserve the right to block IP addresses that submit excessive requests.

You believe in the long-term prospects of your company and plan to hold your ESOs until expiration. Below shows the value composition—intrinsic value plus time value—for ITM, ATM, and OTM options. As a way to reduce risk and lock in gains, early or premature exercise of ESOs must be carefully considered, since there is a large potential tax hit and big opportunity cost in the form of forfeited time value. In this section, we discuss the process of early exercise and explain financial objectives and risks. Below shows option prices based on the same assumptions, except that volatility is assumed to be 60% rather than 30%. This increase in volatility has a significant effect on option prices.

Maximizing Tax

Your employer is required—on the options grant date—to specify a theoretical price of your ESOs in your options agreement. Be sure to request this information from your company, and also find out how the value of your ESOs has been determined. Incentive stock options , also known as statutory or qualified options, are generally only offered to key employees and top management.

Exchange-traded options, especially on the biggest stock, have a great deal of liquidity and trade frequently, so it is easy to estimate the value of an option portfolio. Not so with your ESOs, whose value is not as easy to ascertain, because there is no market price reference point. Option pricing models are therefore crucial for you to know the value of your ESOs.

That makes the stock market the best predictor of performance we have. Over the years, employee stock options have become an increasingly common way to recruit higher-ranking employees and give them a sense of ownership in a company. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, the number of workers holding options has grown nine-fold since the late 1980s.

An individual employee is dependent on the collective output of all employees and management for a bonus. A KPMG study from 2012 suggests that most ESO valuation models use standard valuations based either on Black-Scholes or on lattice approach which have been adjusted to compensate for the special features of typical ESOs. To ensure our website performs well for all users, the SEC monitors the frequency of requests for SEC.gov content to ensure automated searches do not impact the ability of others to access SEC.gov content. We reserve the right to block IP addresses that submit excessive requests.

As we’ve seen, the risk profile of at-the-money options on highly volatile stocks is extremely high. What had been an effective way to reward key people suddenly has the potential to demotivate them or even spur them to quit. Before discussing the strengths and weaknesses of different types of programs, I’d like to step back and examine why option grants are, in general, an extraordinarily powerful form of compensation. Assume you hold ESOs that are worth $35,000 upon grant, as discussed in the earlier sections.

If you immediately sell the stock at the prevailing price of $120, you receive proceeds of $120,000, from which you would have to subtract $78,000. The “gain” of $42,000 should be offset by the $35,000 decline in time value, leaving you with $7,000. Before we look at some of the issues surrounding early exercise—not holding ESOs until expiration—let’s evaluate the outcome of holding ESOs until expiration in light of time value and tax costs. Below shows after-tax, net of time value gains and losses at expiration.

Many assert that over-reporting of income by methods such as this by American corporations was one contributing factor in the Stock Market Downturn of 2002. Some or all of the options may require a certain event to occur, such as an initial public offering of the stock, or a change of control of the company. Daniel Lee CFA, CFP, is a financial planner dedicated to helping busy people make intelligent financial decisions by providing clear, straightforward advice free from conflict of interest. He is currently the head of Plancorp’s San Francisco office, a full-service wealth management company serving families in 44 states. Daniel is an award-winning instructor at UC Berkeley Extension, and is a member of the CFA Society of San Francisco, and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

Let’s assume you are granted ESOs to buy 500 shares of FB on Nov. 29, 2017, which vest in 1/3 increments over the next three years, and have 10 years to expiration. We use options on Meta , formerly Facebook, to demonstrate hedging concepts.

For that reason, fixed value plans provide the weakest incentives of the three types of programs. Listed options have standardized strike prices, trading in increments such as $1, $2.50, $5, or $10, depending on the price of the underlying security .

Given this pattern, the ESO, in total, is therefore a Bermudan option. Note that employees leaving the company prior to vesting will forfeit unvested options, which results in a decrease in the company’s liability, and this too must be incorporated into the valuation. Employee stock options are commonly viewed as an internal agreement providing the possibility to participate in the share capital of a company, granted by the company to an employee as part of the employee’s remuneration package. Regulators and economists have since specified that ESOs are compensation contracts. Many of the Silicon Valley executives that I have talked to worry a lot about joining post-IPO companies at the wrong time, when the companies’ stock prices are temporarily overvalued. Switching to multiyear plans or staggering the exercise prices of megagrants are good ways to reduce the potential for a value implosion.

By staggering the exercise prices in this way, the value of the package becomes more resilient to drops in the stock price. Since the idea behind options is to gain leverage and since megagrants offer the most leverage, you might conclude that all companies should abandon multi-year plans and just give high-octane megagrants.