Ethics of stock option backdating
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.
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.
It was forced to restate earnings by recognizing a stock-based expense increase of 3 million between 19, after allegedly manipulating its stock options grants for the benefit of its senior executives.
It allegedly failed to inform investors, or account for the options expense(s) properly.
The problem with this practice, according to the SEC, was that stock option backdating, while difficult to prove, could be considered a criminal act.
One of the larger backdating scandals occurred at Brocade Communications, a data storage company.
Numerous financial analysts replicated and expanded upon the prior academic research, developing lists of companies whose stock price performance immediately after options grants to senior management (the purported dates of which can be ascertained by inspecting a company's Form 4 filings, generally available online at the SEC's website) was suspicious.
Options backdating may still occur under the new reporting regulations, but Sarbanes-Oxley compliant backdating is far less likely to be used for dishonest reasons due to the short time frame that is allowed for reporting.
As a result, numerous companies are conducting internal investigations to determine if, when, and how backdating occurred, and are filing amended earnings statements and tax forms to show the issuance of “in the money” options in place of the “at the money” options that were previously reported.
There is a five-year statute of limitations for securities fraud, and under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, option grants to senior management must be reported within two days of the grant date.
This all but eliminated the opportunity for senior management to engage any meaningful options backdating.
Corporations, however, have defended the practice of stock option backdating with their legal right to issue options that are already in the money as they see fit, as well as the frequent occurrence in which a lengthy approval process is required.