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However, if the company granted options with an exercise price below fair market value, there would be a compensation expense that had to be recognized under applicable accounting rules.
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.
Since the advent of stock option backdating, corporate policies have moved first toward a posture of encouraging backdating as a standard business practice, but then toward a posture of avoidance as public scandals emerged and investigations into fraudulent or dishonest business practices increased despite a commonly held belief that backdating was an acceptable and legal practice.
In the modern business world, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has all but eliminated fraudulent options backdating by requiring companies to report all options issuances within 2 days of the date of issue.
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.
This is not always the case, according to a ruling by federal judge William Alsup of the U. District Court for the Northern District of California.
According to Alsup’s reasoning and subsequent ruling, it is improper to infer fraudulent activity based solely on the occurrence of options backdating – further facts must be present and proven before the act can be considered to be fraudulent.
One of the larger backdating scandals occurred at Brocade Communications, a data storage company.
Toward the other extreme, where the backdating was a result of overly informal internal procedures or even just delays in finalizing the paperwork documenting options grants, not intentional wrongdoing, there is likely to be no formal sanction—although the company may have to restate its financial statements to bring its accounting into compliance with applicable accounting rules.
With respect to the more serious cases of backdating, it is likely that most of the criminal actions that the government intended to bring were brought in 2007.
To avoid having to pay higher taxes, many companies adopted a policy of issuing “at the money” stock options in lieu of additional income, with the idea that the executive or employee would benefit through the option by working to increase the value of the company without exceeding the one million dollar deductibility cap for executive income.
When company executives discovered that they had the ability to backdate stock option grants, thus making them both tax deductible and “in the money” on the date of actual issuance, the common practice of stock option backdating for financial gain began on a widespread level.