The consequences of backdating executive stock options
In its most basic form, backdating can range from the blatant falsification of a document to take advantage of a lower stock price to allowing executives to select a grant date during a specified period, for example during the 30 days after the grant is approved by the board or committee.Although these practices involve different types of conduct, both create problems because the date when the exercise price is set is not the same as the date on which the option is awarded.
Even though no documents are backdated and there may be no intent to select a lower exercise price, backdating issues may arise if the stock price increases before the corporate formalities have been completed.SEC Chairman Christopher Cox recently stated that the proposed SEC rules on disclosure of executive compensation will “almost certainly address options backdating explicitly.” I. Companies have considerable discretion in determining the timing of stock option awards.Most employee stock options are, or purport to be, granted “at-the-money,” meaning that the exercise price of the option equals the market price of the underlying stock on the date of the grant.Officers and directors could face criminal liability if they have intentionally falsified documents. Companies need to understand their historical option granting practices, address any potential problems and review their option granting procedures going forward.Plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed lawsuits based on backdating allegations, claiming breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, self-dealing, corporate waste and violations of securities laws. The first step is to review historical practices with counsel to identify areas of potential concern.