Employee stock options. Part I – Non-qualified Stock Options

Employee stock options

What are the Employee Stock Options

Employee Stock Options (ESO) are a favorite tool by employers to reward and retain workers. ESO is a contract between the employee and the employer giving the employee the right but not the obligation to purchase company stocks at a pre-determined price in a particular period.

ESO are similar to exchange-traded call options (ETO) in the way they allow their owner to benefit from the rise of the company stock. However, there are few significant differences. ESO can be extended for up to 10 years, while most exchange-traded options expire within a year or two. Additionally,  the employer sometimes can change the strike price of the ESO while this is not possible for ETO.

If you own Employee Stock Options, you have to be very strategic and keep track to all dates associated with the contract. You should get a copy of your option agreement and read it carefully. The devil is in the details.

The dates you need to remember are:

  • Grant Date – the date when the options were awarded to you
  • Vesting Date – the date from when the options can be exercised
  • Exercise Date – the date when the options are actually exercised
  • Expiration Date – the date after which the options can no longer be exercised

You also need to keep a record of the following prices:

  • Exercise price or strike price – the value at which you can buy the options
  • Market price at exercise date – the stock value on the exercise date
  • Sell price – stock value when held and sold after exercise date
  • Bargain element – difference between market price and exercise price at the time of exercise

 

There are two different types of ESO – Non-qualified Stock Options and Incentive Stock Options

 

Non-qualified Stock Options (NSO)

Non-qualified stock options are usually granted to company employees, but they can also be given to vendors, clients, and board of directors. They can be exercised at any time between their vesting date and expiration date. They offer more flexibility than Incentive Stock Options but have less favorable tax treatment. The key requirement set by IRS for NSO is that the exercise price can never be less than the fair market value of the stock as of the grant date. While that can be pretty straight forward for openly traded corporations, there are several valuation caveats for privately held companies.

The granting event of NSO does not trigger taxes. Therefore, receivers of non-qualified stock options do not have to pay taxes upon their receipt.

Taxes are not due on the vesting date either. The vesting date opens a window up to the expiration date by when you will be allowed to exercise the NSO.

NSO exercise is the first tax event from IRS perspective. Depending on when you sell the stock after exercise three main scenarios can occur:

Scenario 1

You exercise your options and sell them immediately at the market price. You owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. Your tax rate is 25%. On the exercise date, you sell your shares immediately. The market price on that day is $15.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

5,000 x 25% = $1,250

Your total due to IRS will be $1,250

 

Scenario 2

You exercise your options and sell your company share a few months later (but less than 12 months) at the current price on that day. First, you owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares. Second, you also owe short-term capital gain taxes on the difference between the selling price and the market price on the exercise date multiplied by the number of shares.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for three months when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 dollars on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

 

Scenario 3

You exercise your options and sell your company shares one year later at the current price on that day. First, you owe taxes on the difference between the market price and exercise price multiplied by the number of shares $5,000 ((15 – 10) x 1,000) as additional ordinary income. Second, you also owe long-term capital gain taxes on the difference between the sale price and the market price on the exercise date multiplied by the number of shares.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted NSO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for twelve months when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25% you will owe additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of additional income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $450 dollars on your $3,000 of long-term capital gains at either 0, 15% or 20%. Most people will have to pay 15% (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 15% = $450

Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

 

Let’s summarize the findings above:

The receiver of non-qualified stock options will pay taxes on the difference between the stock market value and exercise price at the time of NSO exercise. The value has to be reported as additional ordinary income.

If stocks are sold immediately after exercise at the current market value, you only owe taxes on the difference between market and exercise value.

In case you decide to keep the stocks you will owe long-term or short-term capital gains taxes depending on your holding period.

If the stock goes down after exercise and you choose to sell, you can report short-term or long-term capital loss. You can use this loss to offset other capital gains. You can also use up to $3,000 of capital losses to offset ordinary income (like salary, commissions, interest). The remainder of the loss in excess of $3,000 can be rolled over in future years.

What can you do to minimize your tax impact?

  1. Prioritize long-term vs. short-term holding period. Selling shares after holding them for more than 12 months will trigger long-term capital gains which have favorable tax rate over short-term capital gain rate.
  2. Exercise your options as close to the exercise price as possible. However, companies often set very low exercise price, and this strategy may not be viable.
  3. Watch your tax bracket. Your tax rate increases as your income grow. Depending on the vesting and expiry conditions, you may want to consider exercising your options in phases to avoid crossing over the higher tax bracket. Keep in mind that tax brackets are adjusted every year for inflation and cost of living.
  4. You can also donate or give as a gift your low-cost base stocks acquired through exercise of NSO
  5. Choose to recognize compensation income on a grant by making an IRC § 83(b) election. This election is rarely done due to the difficulty in ascertaining the value of the options. If you can determine the value at the time of the grant and decide to pursue this road, you will owe taxes on the fair market value of your options at the grant date. No income will be realized on the following exercise. Another disadvantage of this strategy is the risk of the employee stock price falling below the level at the time of the grant. In this scenario, it would have been advantageous to wait until vesting period.
  6. If the NSO options are transferable, usually restricted to family members, you can consider giving them away as a donation or a gift

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

 

 

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,  ImageCopyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stanciuc’>stanciuc / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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