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Expiring Options? The Case for Auto Exercise

October 02, 2016

Companies that grant stock options know that there are a few core challenges that have maintained their existence throughout the life span of these types of equity arrangements. Among them: how to handle the impending expiration of an in-the-money, unexercised grant.

Does it Really Happen?

Stock plan education site, myStockOptions.com, cites the issue of expiring options as one of the "top mishaps with stock options that can cost you money". This issue of lost dollars creates a conundrum for many companies - if the option expires, there is risk for a disgruntled employee who may decide to litigate. Even if litigation doesn't happen, many employees who find themselves in that situation often beg for reinstatement of the option, which is not without cost to the company (in the form of additional compensation expense that would need to be incurred for the reinstated option, which would be treated like a new grant in-the-money grant for accounting purposes). These scenarios usually motivate employers to prevent the options from expiring.

Preventing Expiration

While the issue of expiring options remains relatively unchanged - as long as there are stock options, there will be concern around the impending expiration of in-the-money grants - the approaches to handling this situation continue to evolve. The most common practices include outreach programs to remind optionees that their grant is about to expire. This communication can be performed by the company, or, via a third party service provider. Although these programs seem to reduce the number of expired grants, there are no guarantees that a grant will be exercised - the action still falls squarely upon the participant.

New Ideas

In recent years, a new approach has emerged as a practical solution to this age old problem: the auto-exercise. The essence of the auto-exercise is that an in-the-money, otherwise unexercised stock option will automatically be exercised at or shortly before the close of the market on the date of expiration. The "type" of exercise that will be executed is usually determined by the company in conjunction with the service provider who will perform the exercise, in compliance with the company's plan terms. I don't have any formal survey data on which auto exercise types are most popular, but I'd say net issuance and sell-to-cover are on my radar as the most logical methods, with an edge to net issuance.

This is not a new concept - auto exercise has been used for publicly traded options for years. However, in adopting this approach for internal stock plans, there are considerations:

  • Cash Flow: Companies need to carefully consider their cash flow when determining which auto exercise method to use. Withholding of shares (net exercise) to cover the exercise costs means that the company will need to remit the tax payment, from its own coffers, to the IRS.
  • Plan Provisions: Again, regardless of which exact method is chosen, it's important to ensure the chosen method is permissible under the plan terms. If there is no provision, it may be necessary to secure a plan amendment.
  • Treatment of Existing Options: When implementing an auto exercise program, a determination must be made as to whether this applies to all grants (existing and new) or only on a forward basis (new grants). Addition of this type of feature to an existing grant is considered a Type 1 modification for accounting purposes, but would be no incremental expense.
  • Threshold for Automatic Exercise: A determination needs to be made as to how far the options need to be "in-the-money" in order for the auto exercise to execute. Usually a threshold to net one share would be the minimum amount, since most plans and service providers wouldn't permit a fractional share issuance in these scenarios.

What if the Employee Doesn't Want Auto-Exercise?

Lastly, there's the scenario of an employee who actually didn't want to exercise their in-the-money options and complains that the company has now created a taxable event on their behalf. While that is a consideration, Fidelity points out that "the result of exercising in-the-money options still provides a net financial benefit to the employees, even after accounting for taxes. Moreover, companies routinely create taxable events by paying out full-value stock awards to employees, so a case can be made that the automatic exercise of in-the-money options should be treated no differently."

Is Auto-Exercise Gaining Traction?

I do think this solution is slowly gaining traction. I think it's definitely worth consideration, especially for companies that seem to have a significant number of in-the-money options expire.

 

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    By Jennifer Namazi

    Content Director

    NASPP