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IBM's Premium Priced Options

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April 25, 2017 | Barbara Baksa

IBM's Premium Priced Options

I was recently asked to comment on a premium priced option granted to IBM's CEO for an article in Bloomberg ("IBM Says CEO Pay Is $33 Million. Others Say It Is Far Higher"). There are a number of things that I find interesting about the grant.

The Option Grant

The option was granted to IBM's CEO and is for a total of 1.5 million shares, granted in four tranches. Each tranche cliff vests in three years and has a different exercise price, ranging from $129.08 to $153.66 (premiums ranging from 5% to 25% of FMV).

The option was granted in January of last year, about a month before IBM's stock price hit its five-year low. IBM's stock price recovered to the point where all four tranches were in the money around mid-July and the option has mostly been in-the-money since then. IBM's stock is now trading at around $160 (down from a three-month high of around $180). Either the options were very effective at motivating IBM's CEO or IBM didn't set the premiums high enough (or both).

The option doesn't vest until January 2019 and we all know what can happen to any company's stock price in that period of time, so there's no guarantee that the option will still be in-the-money when it vests. The option has a term of ten-years, however, so if it isn't in-the-money, there's still plenty of time for the stock price to recover before it expires.

A History of Premium-Priced Options

This isn't IBM's first foray into premium priced options. From 2004 to 2006, IBM granted a series of stock options to its executives that were priced at a 10% premium to the grant date market value. In 2007 they dropped the practice and granted at-the-money options, then they ceased granting options altogether. This is the first option IBM has granted since 2007.

The Valuation Mystery

The reason I was asked to comment on the option is that the value IBM reported for the option (which is also the expense IBM will recognize for it) is significantly less than amount that ISS determined the option was worth. IBM reported that the option has a grant date fair value of $12 million but, according to the Bloomberg article, ISS puts the value at $29 million.

It's not unusual for there to be variations in option value from one calculation to the next, even when all calculations are using the same model and the same assumptions. But a variation this large is surprising. Both IBM and ISS say they are using the Black-Scholes model, so the difference must be attributable to their assumptions. If I were to guess which assumption is causing the discrepancy, my guess would be expected term. The dividend yield and interest rate aren't likely to have that much of an impact and it seems unlikely that there would be significant disagreement as to the volatility of IBM's stock.

Why Price Options at a Premium?

The idea behind premium-priced options is to require execs to deliver some minimum amount of return to investors (e.g., 10%) before they can benefit from their stock options. It's an idea that never really caught on: only 3% of respondents to the NASPP/Deloitte Consulting 2016 Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey grant them.

I've never been a fan of premium-priced options. I suspect that most employees, including execs, assign a very low perceived value to them (or assign no value to them at all), so I doubt they are the incentive they are supposed to be. And the reduction in fair value for the premium is less than the amount by which the options are out-of-the money at grant and far less than the reduction to perceived value, which makes them a costly and inefficient form of compensation.

- Barbara

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