October 1, 2012

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Maximizing Employee Stock Options

Devin Pope

October 1, 2012

You’ve worked hard for your employer for several years and been rewarded with options on the company stock. Now stock options make up a large share of your wealth and you’re thinking it’s time to pay more attention. But what are these options worth and how should they be handled?

As employers have grown more creative with compensation, questions like these no longer apply only to the executive suite. In many companies, options are now available to employees of all levels and for some represent a substantial portion of their total compensation package.

Understanding how stock options work and determining how to maximize their value can be complicated. While employee stock options can be great wealth-creation vehicles, understanding what they are and how they work will greatly increase the odds of a positive outcome.

Stock options grant the holder the right to purchase shares in a company at a specified price (exercise price) for a specified period of time (expiration). The aim of granting options is to incentivize employees, aligning their interest with that of the company. By doing so, the company hopes to increase operational performance and thus profitability.

Option Types
There are two types of options awarded: incentive stock options (ISOs) and nonqualified stock options (NQSOs). The key difference between the two is how they are treated for tax purposes.

ISOs
ISOs offer more favorable tax treatment than NQSOs, taxing the gain on the sale of the underlying shares at long-term capital gains rates if the holding rules are correctly followed.

There are two important holding periods to meet the holding rule requirement. The first holding period begins with the grant date of the option. The option holder must wait at least two years from the grant date prior to selling the underlying shares in order to have the gain taxed at long-term capital gains rates.

The second period begins when the stock is transferred to the employee. In order to receive long-term capital gains treatment, the shares must be held for at least one year following the date the stock was transferred. If the two holding periods are met, then the gain will be considered long-term.

Be aware that ISOs are an alternative minimum tax (AMT) preference item and in certain circumstances can trigger AMT.

NQSOs
NQSOs are less tax favorable, but are more commonly used as they are not subject to the same restrictions on issuance as ISOs. When a NQSO is exercised, tax is due at ordinary income rates on the difference between the exercise price and the value of the stock at the time of exercise. The exercise price becomes the cost basis for the position going forward. When the shares are eventually sold, they will be subject to short-term or long-term capital gains based on the length of the holding period from the time of exercise. 

Option Risks
Stock options are a great way to build wealth and over time may come to represent a large share of one’s net worth. However, there are risks.

First and foremost is concentration. Not only does the employee rely on the company for income but he also depends on the ongoing success of the company if his net worth is to be maintained. A failure of the company is a double whammy—the income is gone and the stock option assets on his personal balance sheet have greatly diminished in value. It is important to sensibly diversify the balance sheet from time to time to avoid having all eggs in one basket.

The method used to exercise options can also have unintended consequences. In the late 1990s, many technology and internet-based companies experienced substantial stock price appreciation. Employees of these companies were suddenly wealthy and exercised their stock options. Given the strength of the companies in the market, many employees chose to hold the shares for further appreciation.

When the bottom fell out and the share prices dropped, these same employees discovered that their tax bill, based on market price at exercise, was greater than the now depressed value of the shares. There were many variations on this theme but the net result was the same: when the share prices plummeted, the option value disappeared and the option owner found himself with liabilities but no assets left to cover them.

An idea often considered is to hedge the exercised shares by purchasing a corresponding put option while waiting for 12 months to pass in order to receive long-term gains treatment. Unfortunately this does not work. Such a strategy suspends the holding period in the eyes of the IRS, and the holding period for capital gains purposes remains suspended as long as the put is in place.

Fortunately all is not lost. With proper planning and a clear vision of what employee stock options can and cannot do, an investor can design a strategy to protect against catastrophic downside loss while allowing participation in the ongoing success of the company. With a clear-eyed, hard-headed analysis, the option owner can greatly increase the probability of meeting long-term financial objectives.

Devin Pope CF, MBA is a wealth advisor with Albion Financial Group.

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