It is common for boards and compensation committees to have discretion over clawback provisions, either over determining whether the clawback provision has been triggered or, once triggered, whether it should be enforced. While this discretionary authority is useful from a design and implementation standpoint, it can sometimes be problematic from an accounting perspective.
Under ASC 718, expense associated with an equity award is determined on the grant date, which cannot occur before an employee and employer reach a mutual understanding of the key terms and conditions of the award. Where a key term is subject to discretion, a mutual understanding of the key terms and conditions of the award may not exist until the point at which this discretion can no longer be exercised.
In the case of clawback provisions, if the circumstances under which the board/compensation committee might exercise their discretion are not clear, this could lead to the conclusion that the service or performance necessary to earn the award is not fully defined. This, in turn, prohibits a mutual understanding of the terms and conditions of the award and delays the grant date. This delay would most likely result in liability treatment of the award.
Recent Comments from SEC Accounting Fellow
Sean May, a professional accounting fellow in the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant, discussed this concern in a speech at the 2016 AICPA Conference on Current SEC and PCAOB Developments, held in Washington, DC. May distinguished objectively applied clawback policies from policies that “may allow those with the authority over compensation arrangements to apply discretion.” In addition, he made the following comments:
If an award includes a key term or condition that is subject to discretion, which may include some types of clawback provisions, then a registrant should carefully consider whether a mutual understanding has been reached and a grant date has been established. When making that determination, a registrant should also assess the past practices exercised by those with authority over compensation arrangements and how those practices may have evolved over time. To that end, registrants should consider whether they have the appropriate internal control over financial reporting to monitor those practices in order to support the judgment needed to determine whether a grant date has been established.
Clawbacks and Discretion are Common
68% of respondents to the NASPP’s 2016 Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey (co-sponsored by Deloitte Consulting) indicate that their equity awards are subject to clawback provisions. 83% of those respondents, indicate that the board or compensation committee has some level of discretion over enforcement of the provisions.
If you are among those 83%, it might be a good idea to review the comments May made at the AICPA conference with your accounting advisers to make sure your equity awards receive the accounting treatment you expect.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what tax withholding rate can be used for federal income tax purposes, now that the FASB’s update to ASC 718 is final and companies are free to adopt it. So I thought I’d take a blog entry to clarify what’s changed and what hasn’t.
Who’s the Decider on Tax Withholding Procedures
One thing that a lot of folks seem to have forgotten is that the FASB doesn’t determine tax withholding procedures; they just determine how you account for situations in which tax is withheld. The ultimate authority on how much tax you should (and can) withhold in the United States is the IRS, not the FASB.
Tax Withholding for Supplemental Payments
I’ve blogged about the rules for withholding on supplemental payments, which include stock plan transactions, quite a bit (search on the term “Excess Withholding” in the NASPP Blog). There are two choices when it comes to withholding taxes on stock plan transactions for employees who have received less than $1 million in supplemental payments for the year:
Withhold at the flat rate (currently 25%). No other rate is permissible.
Withhold at the employee’s W-4 rate. Here again, no other rate is permissible.
If employees want you to withhold additional FIT, they have to submit a new W-4 requesting the withholding (as a flat dollar amount, not a percentage) and you have to agree to withhold at the W-4 rate. This is stated in IRS Publication 15 and even more emphatically in IRS Information Letter 2012-0063. Whether you are using method 1 or 2, you can’t arbitrarily select a withholding rate.
Where Does the FASB Come Into This?
The FASB has no authority over these requirements and they didn’t amend ASC 718 to make is easier for you to ignore the IRS requirements. They amended ASC 718 to make it easier for companies that grant awards to non-US employees to allow those employees to use share withholding. Other countries don’t have a flat rate, making it challenging for the US stock plan administration group to figure out the correct withholding rate for non-US employees. This would allow companies to withhold at the maximum rate in other countries and refund the excess to employees through local payroll (who is more easily able to figure out the correct withholding rate).
The only change for US tax withholding procedures is that if you want to use the W-4 rate to withhold excess FIT, withholding shares for the excess payment will no longer trigger liability treatment once you adopt the update to ASC 718. But if you want to withhold excess FIT, you still have to follow the IRS procedures to do so. Previously, even if you had followed the IRS W-4 procedures, withholding shares for an excess tax payment would have triggered liability treatment.
Why Not Use the W-4 Rate?
No one wants to use the W-4 rate because it is impossible to figure out. You have to aggregate the income from the stock plan transaction with the employee’s other income for the payroll period, which the stock plan administration group doesn’t have any visibility to. The rate varies depending on the number of exemptions the employee claims on Form W-4. And the rate is complicated to figure out. I count at least seven official methods of figuring out this rate and companies can make up their own method (but if they make up a method, they have to apply it consistently, the stock plan administration group can’t make up a method that is different than the method the payroll group uses).
The upshot is that you literally can’t figure it out. You would have to run the income through your payroll system to figure out what the tax withholding should be. And that’s a problem because your stock plan administration system is designed to figure out the withholding and tell payroll what it is, not the other way around.
What’s the Penalty?
Members often ask me what the penalty is for withholding extra FIT without following the IRS procedures. Generally there isn’t a penalty to the company for overwithholding, provided there’s no intent to defraud the IRS (if you don’t understand how overwithholding could involve tax fraud, see “Excess Withholding, Part 2“) and the withholding is at the request of the employee. Doing this on a one-off basis, at the occasional request of an employee, probably won’t result in substantial penalties to the company, especially if the employee has appropriately completed Form W-4 for his/her tax situation. (Note, however, that I’m not a tax advisor. You should consult your own advisors to assess the risk of penalty to your company.)
But I’ve encountered a number of companies that want to create a system to automate electing a higher withholding rate without following the W-4 procedures (in some cases, for all of their award holders). I think that it could be problematic to create an automated system that circumvents the W-4 process, especially in light of Information Letter 2012-0063. That system is likely to be noticed if the company is audited, and I think it could have negative ramifications.
For today’s blog entry, I have the results of the NASPP’s Quick Survey on ASC 718, presented in a nifty interactive infographic (place your cursor over a section of each chart to see its label). (Click here if you don’t see the graphic below.)
BTW—if you are one of the 83% of respondents that haven’t yet figured out the impact of the tax accounting changes to your earnings per share, see my blog entry “Run Your Own Numbers,” for easy-peasy instructions on how most companies can figure this out in just 5 minutes. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and value to your accounting/finance team.
Many companies are very excited about the expanded exception to liability treatment that is available under ASU 2019-06 (see my blog entry, “Update to ASC 718: The FASB’s Decisions,” December 1). In the NASPP’s quick survey on the ASU, about 30% of respondents so far have said that this is the amendment they are most excited about (to the extent that anyone can be excited about accounting).
Many plans (possibly even most plans, by a wide margin), include language prohibiting employees from tendering award shares to cover tax payments in excess of the minimum statutory required withholding. This language is included in the plan to make it abundantly clear that the company doesn’t allow share withholding in excess of the minimum required tax payment; liability treatment could be required if it appears that the company would allow this, even if it isn’t ever actually done. I’m sure the language is also included to protect companies from themselves—if anyone had ever gotten the bright idea to allow share withholding for a tax payment in excess of the minimum required, hopefully someone would have realized the plan prohibited this.
If this language exists in your plan, the plan has to be amended to change the limitation from the minimum required payment to the maximum payment before you can change your share withholding procedures.
Shareholder Approval May Be Required
At a minimum, the Board of Directors would need to approve the amendment to the plan. But for some companies, shareholder approval may be required as well. The NYSE and NASDAQ require shareholder approval of any material amendments to stock plans. As Mike notes:
From the perspective of the NYSE and NASDAQ, if the Stock Plan allows the recycling of shares surrendered or withheld to pay tax withholding (that is, puts those shares back in the authorized share pool and allows those shares to be re-used for future awards), then an amendment of that Plan that allows for tax withholding at the maximum rate, instead of the minimum rate, would be material because it will increase the number of shares available for issuance under the Plan!
According to the NASPP’s 2013 Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey (co-sponsored by Deloitte Consulting), close to 60% of respondents allow shares withheld for taxes to be recycled. These companies would need to obtain shareholder approval of this amendment.
Companies May Need to Wait Until After Adopting the ASU
Once you amend your plan, your auditors make take this as an indication that you plan to allow share withholding in excess of the minimum required tax payment. If so, and the amendment is approved before you adopt ASU 2016-09, that’s going to trigger liability treatment for all of the awards under the plan. This liability treatment will go away once you adopt the ASU, but until then, it could be a problem.
It might be possible to structure the amendment so that it is effective only after your company adopts ASU 2016-09, but it’s a good idea to consult with your legal and accounting advisors before rushing headlong into amending your plan.
As noted last week, the FASB has issued the final Accounting Standards Update to ASC 718. Here are a few more tidbits about it.
The ASU Has a Name
Handily, the ASU now has a name that we can use to refer to it: ASU 2016-09. Now I can stop calling it “the ASU to ASC 718,” which was awkward—too many acronyms.
One surprise to me is how the transition works if the ASU is adopted in an interim period other than the company’s first fiscal quarter. When the ASU is adopted in Q2, Q3, or Q4, the update requires that any adjustments required for the transition be calculated as of the beginning of the fiscal year. Consequently, where companies adopt the ASU in these periods, they will end up having to recalculate the earlier periods in their fiscal year (and restate these periods wherever they appear in their financial statements), even if the transition method is prospective or modified retrospective, which normally would not require recalculation or restatement of prior periods.
For example, if a company adopts the ASU in its second fiscal quarter, the company will have to go back recalculate APIC and tax expense as required under tax accounting approach specified in the ASU for its first fiscal quarter. Likewise, if the company decides to account for forfeitures as they occur, the company will have to recalculate expense for the first fiscal quarter under the new approach and record a cumulative adjustment to retained earnings as of the beginning of the year, not the beginning of Q2.
While I can understand the rationale for this requirement, it is different than how I expected the transition to work for interim period adoptions.
No Other Surprises
The ASU 2016-09 seems to be an accurate reflection of the decisions made at the FASB’s meeting last November and documented ad nauseam here in this blog. I still haven’t read every last word of the amended language in the ASC 718, but I don’t think there are any other significant surprises.
Here are answers to a few questions you might have:
When do companies have to adopt the ASU?
Public companies have to adopt it by their first annual and interim fiscal period beginning after December 15, 2016. Private companies get an extra year to adopt it for annual periods and an extra two years for interim periods.
Do companies have to adopt the whole ASU at once?
You betcha! I’ve said it before: this isn’t a salad bar! You can’t pick and choose the parts of the ASU that you like: it’s all or nothing.
Can we adopt the ASU this quarter even though the quarter ends tomorrow?
Yep, you sure can. If you are prepared to change over to the new tax accounting procedures, have already decided whether you want to change how you account for forfeitures (and, if you are changing approaches, are ready to go with the new approach), and are prepared to comply with any other aspects of the ASU that apply to your company, you can adopt it in this quarter. But if you aren’t ready to go on any aspects of the ASU, you might want to wait until at least Q2 to give yourself a little more time.
Do we have to adopt it in this quarter if we want to adopt early?
No, this is not required. Companies can adopt it in any interim period up until they are required to adopt the update.
Are there any surprises in the final ASU?
Got me. I’m actually on vacation this week. I’m at spring training in Phoenix—where ASU stands for Arizona State University and I’m sitting four rows back behind home plate. I wrote this last week, before the FASB had issued the ASU, just in case. With the end of the quarter imminent, I wanted to have a blog entry ready to go so that any NASPP members whose employers want to adopt the ASU in Q1 would know that it had been issued. But I haven’t had a chance to do anything more than skim the ASU between innings.
I plan to have more complete coverage when I’m back in the office next week. For now, go A’s!
For my last installment (at least for the moment—expect another blog when the FASB officially adopts the new standard) in my series on the FASB’s ASC 718 simplification project, I answer a few questions relating to early adoption of the new standard.
Can companies adopt it early?
Yes, companies can adopt the amended standard in any interim or annual period after the FASB approves the official amendment. If the FASB approves the amendment as expected in this quarter, companies could adopt it in this quarter.
Can companies adopt it now?
No, not quite yet. Companies have to wait until the final amendment is approved by the FASB to adopt it.
Can companies adopt just the parts of the update they like early and wait to adopt the rest of it?
Heck no! This isn’t a salad bar; it’s all or nothing. You have to take the bad with the good.
If we start allowing employees to use shares to cover tax payments in excess of the minimum required withholding now, are my auditors really going to make me use liability accounting, given that we all know the rules are changing soon?
Well, I can’t really speak for your auditors, so you’d have to ask them—accounting-types do tend to be sticklers for the rules, however. If the FASB approves the amendment on time, you could adopt it this quarter and there’d be no question about liability treatment. But you’d have to adopt the whole standard, including the tax accounting provisions, so you would want to make sure you are prepared to do that.
If you don’t want to adopt the entire update as soon as the FASB approves it, liability treatment applies if shares are withheld for more than the minimum tax payment. For awards that are still outstanding when you adopt the update, this liability treatment will go away. You’ll record a cumulative adjustment at the time of adoption (see my blog last week on the transition) to switch over to equity treatment. But for the awards that are settled prior to when you adopt the standard, you won’t reverse the expense you recognize as a result of the liability treatment.
If the awards that will settle between now and when you expect to adopt the standard are few enough, the expense resulting from the liability treatment might be immaterial. Likewise, if your stock price is at or below the FMV back when the awards were granted, you might not be concerned about liability treatment because it likely wouldn’t result in any additional expense.
Note, however, that if you establish a pattern of allowing share withholding for excess tax payments, liability treatment applies to all awards, not just those for which you allow excess withholding. You could have liability treatment for all award settlements that occur before you adopt the amended standard.
For today’s installment in my series on the FASB’s ASC 718 simplification project, I explain what the next steps are in this process.
Is the update final now?
Not quite yet. For the most part, we know what the final update is going to look like because the FASB’s decisions with respect to each issue in the exposure draft are public. But the FASB staff still has to draft the actual amendment to ASC 718 and the FASB has to vote to adopt the amendment.
In addition, there are a few technical details in the exposure draft that were commented on and that we expect the staff to clean up, but we won’t know for sure until the amendment is issued. The FASB didn’t vote on these details because they don’t change the board’s overall position; it is merely a matter of clarifying what the board’s decision means with respect to some aspects of practical implementation. For example, the language of the proposed amendment relating to share withholding seemed to imply something different than the FASB’s explanation of what this change would be. I am assuming the staff will modify this language but we won’t know for sure until the final amendment is issued.
When will the FASB adopt the amendment?
According to the FASB’s Technical Agenda, this project is expected to be finalized in Q1 2016. Anyone who’s been in the industry for a more than a couple years knows, however, that these things tend to slip a bit. In my 20 years in this industry, I can’t think of a single regulation, rule, amendment, etc. that, when targeted for issuance during a specific time frame, came out earlier than the very last week or so in that time frame. (10 pts to anyone who can prove me wrong on this—I started in the industry in 1994, so stuff before that doesn’t count.) The FASB is no exception, so I’m guessing that we are looking at the end of March or maybe even Q2 2016.
When will companies be required to comply with the new guidance?
Public companies will have to adopt the update by their first fiscal year beginning after December 15, 2016 (and in the interim periods for that year). Private companies have a year longer to adopt for their annual period and two years longer for interim periods.
Will the standard now be called ASC 718(R)?
No. For people like me who write about accounting, that would be handy because it would make it easy to distinguish when I’m talking about the pre-amendment vs. the post-amendment ASC 718. Now I’ll have to use some sort of unwieldy clarification, like “ASC 718, as amended in 2016.” But under the FASB’s codification system, the existing standard is simply updated to incorporate the amendments. The name of the standard will stay the same.
If the Codification system didn’t exist, maybe we would call it FAS 123(R)(R). Or would it be FAS 123(R)2?
For my first blog entry of 2016, I look at the transition methods that will apply under the FASB’s Accounting Standards Update (ASU) to ASC 718. (If you’ve forgotten what this is all about, read Part I and Part II of my update on the FASB’s decisions on the ASC 718 simplification project.) Also, see my handy chart showing how FASB voted on each issue in the exposure draft and the required transition method for it.
The prospective transition method is perhaps the easiest to understand. Under this method, the company just changes its accounting procedures on a go-forward basis, with no restatement of prior periods or cumulative adjustments.
The prospective transition method will be used for the tax accounting provisions. For transactions that occur after a company adopts the ASU, the amounts that would have been recorded to additional paid-in capital will now simply be recorded to tax expense. It’s that easy: no adjustments to paid-in capital or tax expense for past transactions and the ASC 718 APIC pool calculation is no more.
Retrospective transition is also fairly straightforward. With this method, the company changes its accounting procedures going forward, but also adjusts any prior periods reported in its current financials. For example, most companies show three fiscal years in their annual financial statements. Where retrospective transition is required, a company that adopts the ASU in 2016 would not only change their accounting procedures for 2016, but would go back and adjust the 2015 and 2014 periods as if the new rules had applied in those periods.
The adjustment is presented only in the current financials; the company does not reissue any previously issued financial statements or re-file them with the SEC.
The only provisions in the ASU that are subject to retrospective transition are the provisions related to classification of amounts reported in the cash flow statement (and for the classification of excess tax benefits, the company can choose between prospective and retrospective).
This transition method is used when a cumulative adjustment is necessary. Accounting for forfeitures is a good example. A company can’t just switch from applying an estimated forfeiture rate to accounting for forfeitures as they occur on a prospective basis: since previously recorded expense was adjusted based on estimated forfeitures, companies would end up double-counting forfeitures when they occur. Retrospective restatement wouldn’t fix this problem because some of the prior expense may have been recorded outside of the periods presented in the company’s current financials.
It also doesn’t make sense to make companies record a big change in expense in their current period; this would be confusing (and possibly alarming) to investors and isn’t reflective of what is happening. So instead, the transition is handled with a cumulative adjustment that is recorded as of the start of the fiscal period. This adjustment is recorded in retained earnings (which is the balance sheet account where net earnings end up) with an offsetting entry to paid-in capital.
In the case of forfeitures, the company calculates the total expense it would have recognized as of the start of the period if it had been accounting for forfeitures as they occur all along and compares this to the actual amount of expense recorded to date (which should generally be lower). The difference is then deducted from retained earnings, with a commensurate increase to paid-in capital.
In addition to the forfeitures provision, modified retrospective is used for private companies that take advantage of the opportunity to change how they account for liability awards. It is also used theoretically for the share withholding provisions if companies have been allowing employees to tender shares in payment of taxes in excess the minimum statutorily required withholding and has outstanding awards that are subject to liability treatment as a result. But I doubt anyone has been doing that, so in practice, I don’t think a transition will be necessary for the share withholding provisions.
Last Monday, the FASB met to review the comments submitted on the exposure draft of the proposed amendments to ASC 718. I have been watching the video of the meeting (and you can too) and have made it about half way through. After getting over my shock that no one on the Board has mentioned what a finely crafted comment letter I submitted, here’s what I’ve learned so far. (See the NASPP alert “FASB Issues Exposure Draft of ASC 718 Amendments” for a summary of the exposure draft).
The most controversial aspect of the exposure draft is the proposal to record all excess tax benefits and shortfalls in tax expense. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of letters submitted opposed this (see my Nov. 10 blog “Update to ASC 718: The Comments“)—including my own aforementioned finely crafted letter—and the FASB staff’s recommendation that the excess benefits and shortfalls be recognized in paid-in-capital instead, the Board voted to affirm the position in the exposure draft. I was a little surprised at how little time the Board spent considering the staff’s recommendation.
The Board decided that stock plan transactions could be treated as “discrete items” that do not need to be considered when determining the company’s annual effective tax rate. I don’t know a lot about effective tax rates, but I’m guessing that this is poor consolation for the impact this change will have on the P&L.
The Board affirmed the proposal to allow companies to make an entity-wide decision to account for forfeitures as they occur, rather than estimating them. At one point, the board was considering requiring companies to account for forfeitures as they occur (without even re-exposing this decision for comment), which was a little scary. I think most of us have supported this proposal primarily on the basis that companies can keep their current processes in place if they want; I’m not sure it would have received as much support if accounting for forfeitures as they occur had been mandatory (this wasn’t even mandatory under FAS 123). Thankfully, the Board backed off from that suggestion.
The Board affirmed the decision to expand the share withholding exception to liability treatment, in spite of concerns that the potential cash outflow without a recorded liability could be misleading for users. For one nail-biting moment, eliminating the exception altogether was on the table (in my amateur opinion, this would seem to go well beyond the scope of what is supposed to be a “simplification” project, given the considerable impact this would have on practices with respect to full value awards). Luckily, this suggestion did not receive any votes (not even from the Board member who suggested it, oddly enough).
More on the rest of the FASB’s decisions in a future blog entry.