Accounting standards setters yesterday agreed to give companies six more months to comply with a plan that would require them to treat stock options as an expense, cheering both overburdened businesses and lobbyists trying to scuttle the plan.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board voted 5 to 2 in favor of pushing back the plan's effective date from January to June 15. Several board members cited public statements from Securities and Exchange Commission officials who argued that companies already are struggling to meet other new regulatory obligations.
"I was trying to balance the improvement I think the standard will provide to readers of financial statements with concerns that preparers have in being able to do it and do it well," board member G. Michael Crooch said in an interview.
But the delay also gives lobbyists for some of the nation's largest technology companies more time to press Congress and the SEC to derail the options expensing plan. Options give employees the right to buy stock at a specific price within a set amount of time. They are widely used by companies in the technology sector as a recruitment and retention tool.
Treating options as an expense could slash reported profits for companies that use them heavily. The value of options currently appears in a footnote on companies' financial reports, but not as a part of income statements. More than 500 U.S. companies already voluntarily expense stock options, according to a study by Bear, Stearns & Co.
"A lot can happen with an additional six months -- a lot can happen legislatively, a lot can happen at the SEC," said Jeff Peck, the chief lobbyist for the International Employee Stock Options Coalition. "The political landscape could look very different in six months."
Last summer the House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted legislation that would derail the accounting board's plan, but similar legislation bogged down in the Senate after Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) expressed strong opposition.
Lobbyists recently have accelerated their efforts. Within the past two weeks, a bipartisan group of 53 senators sent letters to SEC Chairman William H. Donaldson requesting that the agency order more study of the issue and provide guidance and revise some of its provisions. Donaldson has previously said the agency will consider such measures, but he has not committed to them.
"The $64,000 question is what the SEC is going to do," Peck said. "I think there is a real desire to learn precisely what the SEC has in mind."
Standards setters said yesterday that they are aware the postponement leaves the plan vulnerable to outside influence. But they said they were convinced that many companies needed extra time to get the job done.
"I certainly hope that [delay] doesn't cause us to be in a position where we can't implement the standard," board member Crooch said.
Separately, the accounting board yesterday rejected a proposal by Cisco Systems Inc., Genentech Inc. and Qualcomm Inc. that would have allowed businesses to limit the value of stock options they expense by 70 percent or more. Board members said there was insufficient academic basis to recommend the approach.