Stock option backdating closure letter
There is a five-year statute of limitations for securities fraud, and under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, option grants to senior management must be reported within two days of the grant date.
This all but eliminated the opportunity for senior management to engage any meaningful options backdating.
For instance, public companies generally grant stock options in accordance with a formal stock option plan approved by shareholders at an annual meeting.
Many companies' stock option plans provide that stock options must be granted at an exercise price no lower than fair market value on the date of the option grant.
While this conclusion is logical in cases of options backdating in which executives knowingly participated in the criminal actions, options backdating can be a result of normal accounting or corporate policies that are not criminal in nature, and is a legal practice as long as the backdated contract is appropriately reported for tax purposes.
Academic researchers had long been aware of the pattern, exhibited by some companies, of share prices rising dramatically in the days following grants of stock options to senior management.
If a company backdated its stock options, but failed to recognize a compensation expense, then the company's accounting may not be correct, and its quarterly and annual financial reports to investors may be misleading.Corporations, however, have defended the practice of stock option backdating with their legal right to issue options that are already in the money as they see fit, as well as the frequent occurrence in which a lengthy approval process is required.In 1972, a new revision (APB 25) in accounting rules resulted in the ability of any company to avoid having to report executive incomes as an expense to their shareholders if the income resulted from an issuance of “at the money” stock options.However, in late 2005 and early 2006, the issue of stock options backdating gained a wider audience.Numerous financial analysts replicated and expanded upon the prior academic research, developing lists of companies whose stock price performance immediately after options grants to senior management (the purported dates of which can be ascertained by inspecting a company's Form 4 filings, generally available online at the SEC's website) was suspicious.
The SEC’s opinions regarding backdating and fraud were primarily due to the various tax rules that apply when issuing “in the money” stock options versus the much different – and more financially beneficial – tax rules that apply when issuing “at the money” or "out of the money" stock options.