Stock Option Backdating

The following is a paper I coauthored in December 2006 for a Seminar in Management Control Systems while completing my Masters of Science in Accounting & Taxation at the University of Hartford. Given the recent resurgence of news relating to options backdating, I thought I’d reprint the paper for those who might be interested.

Executive Summary
Stock option backdating is a complex issue. While there are legal ways to backdate stock options, as we found, few companies can properly account for backdated options. As a result, we found that many companies lose top talent, are scrutinized by regulatory bodies, and are subject to fines and penalties. The negative effects on shareholder value are significant cause for concern. Ultimately, the potential gain executives’ reap is far outweighed by the likelihood of detection. Nonetheless, stock option backdating is a prevalent practice. The statistics can be staggering: $5.9 billion in fines, more than 120 companies under investigation. In the coming pages, the history, legal issues, and effects on shareholder value will be explored.

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IFRS Confusion Abounds

In the past few years, much has been made of the plans to merge the accounting standards used in the US with those used by much of the rest of the developed world. In 2002, the US standards setter and the international standards bodies agreed to a framework for convergence of US generally accepted accounting principles (US GAAP) with the International Financial Reporting System (IFRS) in a document known as the Norwalk Agreement.1 Since then, the US and international bodies (known, respectively, as the Financial Accounting Standards Board, or FASB, and the International Accounting Standards Board, or IASB) have worked to align their respective standards so that, eventually, developed nations will have a homogenous accounting system. One particular point of difficulty in this effort, however, has been the issue of fair value accounting. The economic recession that began in 2007 further complicated convergence efforts as attention was drawn away from reconciliation efforts and focused on both placing blame and reforming the practices that caused the crisis. Then, with the election of President Barack Obama, the entire convergence movement was threatened when the newly-appointed chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that she would not “feel bound”2 by the convergence roadmap established by her predecessor.

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