June 16, 2010

Issuance of Stock Options: How Issuing Stock Options is Like Selling Your Home (And How a Certified Valuation Analyst is Like Your Realtor) – Part 1

By Sean R. Saari, Partner, Advisory Services

Issuance of Stock Options: How Issuing Stock Options is Like Selling Your Home (And How a Certified Valuation Analyst is Like Your Realtor) – Part 1 Valuation

When selling your home, it is common to use an agent to list, promote and show the property. In exchange, you pay a portion of the sales price as a commission to the agent. The benefits of using an agent include: 1) the listing of your home in a database so that homebuyers can access information about it; 2) the agent acting as your middleman during the negotiation process; and 3) the incentive it gives the agent to sell your home quickly (so that her or she can earn their commission). 

Some people choose to sell their home by owner and forego using an agent. These are typically the homes that have “For Sale” signs in their yards for many months, sometimes even years (you know the ones), before they are actually sold. These people often believe that the benefit of not having to pay an agent commission on the sale of their home is worth the prolonged period it will likely take to sell the property. 

What does the choice of hiring a real estate agent or selling your home by owner have in common with private companies issuing stock options? The strange answer is: Much more than many of us realize. 

The Stock Option Landscape

More and more private companies are issuing stock options as part of their key employees’ compensation plans. This may be driven by the ideas that: 1) stock options don’t “cost” anything to the company; 2) stock options will positively influence employees’ performance; or 3) since public companies issue stock options, it must be a good idea and private companies should follow suit. Regardless of the motivation, what most private company owners and executives do not realize is that accounting for stock options, for both tax and financial reporting purposes, may actually have an out-of pocket cost that is greater than the value of the options themselves.

In order to value stock options issued by private companies, there are two major steps that must be undertaken:

1. Determining the value of the company’s equity (which is a key input to valuing a stock option)

2. Determining the value of the stock option

There are not many privately-held companies with the in-house resources or expertise necessary to perform either of the requirements above, both of which are essential in accounting for the issuance of stock options. This often puts accountants in the awkward position of trying to explain to business owners the “unseen” costs and accounting ramifications associated with issuing stock options.

Back to our analogy, hiring a valuation expert to determine the value of stock options is much like hiring a real estate agent to sell your home. A valuation expert is able to perform both of the tasks identified above that are necessary to value the stock options issued by a private company, much like a real estate agent takes care of the necessary steps to sell your home. This work is not free, however, and depending on the complexity of the company and the options issued, the cost to value a private company’s stock options can range in cost from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. When private companies issue stock options, they often do not consider the “commission” that they will have to pay to a valuation expert to ensure that the options are properly valued. Unlike real estate agent commissions, however, which are based on the sale price of the home, valuation fees are relatively fixed. 

Just like selling a home “by owner,” some companies will issue stock options and try to determine the value themselves (or even worse, not value them at all). By not using a real estate agent, homeowners often find themselves making no headway in the sale of their home. Similarly, by not hiring a valuation expert to value the stock options that they have issued, private companies create the risk that their auditors will not sign off on their financial statements. Maybe even more importantly for business owners and employees, unsubstantiated option values leave both companies and their employees in danger of stiff tax consequences.

The information in this article is not meant to represent legal or tax advice. Please consult with a Marcum business valuation professional or your tax/legal advisor regarding the applicability of these issues to your particular situation.

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