The costs of options expensing rules

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, The costs of options expensing rules, Truth on the Market (January 31, 2006),

richard boothLarry points us to a new corporate finance blog, Richard Booth’s The Quant. It looks like a great blog. The most recent post is on executive compensation–particularly on the serious problems of expensing options (and the FASB rule requiring it). Here’s a lengthy and informative excerpt (with a couple words from me following):

In the end, it might not matter whether a company treats the grant of options as an expense. Studies show that a company’s choice of accounting convention makes no difference as to stock price. As it is, analysts can translate earnings into cash flow, while CFOs can explain away the aberrant effects of accounting rules by calculating pro forma earnings. But does it really make sense to invent yet another way by which the numbers diverge? Moreover, it will be exceedingly difficult to unwind the effects of expensing options. First, expensing options may change management behavior by eliminating the incentive to distribute cash through repurchases. Second, option pricing models are based on an options market composed of diversified investors who can use options for hedging. For the CEO who gets paid in options, they are an all-or-nothing proposition. If your stock goes up, you win. If it goes down, you get squat. It follows that options are worth a whole lot less as compensation than they are as market instruments.

Indeed, management compensation has been declining as a percentage of income as options have become the primary form of compensation. In 1985 officer compensation was more than 70 percent of corporate taxable income in the aggregate, whereas during the five years up to 2000 it averaged about 40 percent of taxable income. Thus, the perception that management compensation is out of control is mostly about the redistribution of pay from losers to winners.

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Still, it has been suggested that payment in stock would make more sense because it would give management the same kind of stake as an investor. Wrong. Aside from the fact that managers cannot diversify, with an outright grant of stock, management assumes the risk that stock price will fall and not simply fail to increase. With stock, management will have some interest in undertaking conservative strategies designed to maintain stock price. On the other hand, in a bear market, creating incentives to maintain stock price may sound like a pretty good idea. Then again, if one is interested primarily in safety of principal or a reliable return, there is always the bond market. It makes no sense to invest in stock unless one seeks a higher return. So it makes no sense to create incentives for management to pursue a conservative strategy. Again, investor diversification is key. A diversified investor prefers that each individual company maximize return even if it means that a few may go bust. If one is adequately diversified, the winners will usually outperform the losers by more than enough to generate a superior return. But few CEOs would bet the farm on a promising new line of business if it were not for stock options and plenty of them.

“Mere” accounting rules and disclosure rules can have significant substantive consequences. Regulators and corporate scolds look at superficial evidence of excess or of inconsistency and cast about for a “fix.” As often as not, the fix makes things worse, not better, in large part because economic reality is far more complex (and diverse across firms) than regulation can comprehend. The rules, in effect, favor expensing options early and “consistently” (see the full post for why consistency is not among the rules’ actual results), even if inaccurately. The consequence may be less risk taking, less effective compensation schemes, less investor return and, in fact, less consistency. Pretty dramatic consequences for a mere adjustment in accounting standards.