The nation's biggest technology companies are rolling out another tactic in their long-running battle to prevent regulators from forcing them to treat stock options as expenses on their books.
As an industry-led effort to curtail regulators' authority bogs down in the Senate, three companies tomorrow will present an alternative method for valuing stock options that generally would allow companies to report lower expenses. Cisco Systems Inc., Genentech Inc. and Qualcomm Inc. also will ask officials at the Financial Accounting Standards Board to study the issue more thoroughly and delay a final rule, said lawyers involved in the effort.
How to account for stock options is one of the most hotly contested business issues of the past decade. Heavy industry pressure derailed a plan to treat options as an expense in the 1990s. The FASB's current leaders say they will release a final standard that will include guidelines on how to value options by the end of the year. The board could require companies to begin treating options as an expense as early as January.
Expensing options will not have an impact on cash flow, but it could sharply cut reported profit at companies that use options heavily as a compensation and recruitment tool -- especially those in the technology and biotechnology sectors. More than 500 U.S. companies voluntarily expense stock options, according to an analysis by Bear Stearns & Co.
Options give employees the right to purchase company stock at a set price within a specific time frame. Valuing the options can be complicated, said technology industry lawyer Kim M. Boylan, because they mature over several years and because workers have a choice when and whether to exercise them.
Accounting regulators will not require companies to use a specific approach to value the options they award, as long as firms employ a method that fits certain FASB guidelines and makes sense economically. It's unclear how authorities will respond to the new method the three companies will propose tomorrow. Board members were traveling yesterday and could not be reached, a spokeswoman said.
The technology companies' plan makes a few important changes to an approach laid out by the board earlier this year. For instance, the new plan would allow companies to discount their option expenses to take into account the fact that employees cannot sell their options to other people and cannot buy or sell options during key "blackout" periods, such as before earnings announcements. Such restrictions make options less valuable, the industry says.
The new plan also would allow companies to estimate the volatility of their stock price by using an index such as the S&P 500, rather than calculating the volatility of an individual company's stock price over time. That approach likely will serve to reduce volatility and result in lower reported expenses, accounting industry experts said.
Meanwhile, lobbyists continue to try to persuade Senate leaders to pass a bill that would require companies to expense options only for their five highest-paid executives, rather than the entire workforce. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill in July. But Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) has vowed to block any effort in the Senate as an improper interference with accounting regulators.
Nonetheless, the electronics trade association AeA is hosting a Washington "fly in" for top industry executives to meet with key senators Sept. 21. With most legislation on hold because of the election year, action on the issue is unlikely.
"Anybody working any issue has a pretty heavy lift right now, unless you're in the homeland security appropriations bill or the 9/11 recommendations," said Jeffrey Peck, a lobbyist for the International Employee Stock Options Coalition. "Having said that, stranger things have happened."
Peck and other insiders said they hope the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees the accounting standards board, will jump in at some point with industry-friendly guidance. SEC Chief Accountant Donald T. Nicolaisen has said he would support a delay in implementing the expensing rule but has not yet taken a position on the new valuation approach.
"At the end of the day, I'm sure no one will be perfectly happy with the standard," he said in an interview yesterday. "But hopefully, everybody will say it's been done with due process, due care."