martedì 8 novembre 2011

1 Year until I qualify - Is it really worth it?

The Economic Measure of Stock Compensation Cost

I'll be the first to admit that, when it comes to taxes, I'm sort of a babe in the woods myself. But, the complexity that is misleading the senators does not lie in the tax rules. The tax rules in this respect are simple, and a review of the fundamentals ought to be sufficient to set the stage for my accounting lesson to them.

There are two kinds of deductible expenses for tax purposes. The first type is the cost of productive resources that are consumed; examples include depreciation of productive assets, rent of productive assets, costs of inventory acquired and subsequently sold, and salaries of employees. The second type, financial cost, was at one time more controversial; and the most straightforward example is interest cost of debt.

Many decades ago, interest costs were seen to be fundamentally different than the costs of using productive resources. They were merely distributions to stakeholders, i.e., more analogous to dividends than costs of production. Eventually, though, in response to political pressure from railroads and other large corporations, taxing authorities adopted a shareholder perspective to tax deductions. In regards to interest costs, they should be deductible since they reduce the maximum amount that could be distributed to shareholders. In other words, from the perspective of the shareholder, expenditures on productive resources and the interest are both costs that reduce the amount of funds available to be distributed to shareholders.

Moreover, the tax law straightforwardly provides for the amount of interest that may ultimately be deducted as the difference between the total amount borrowed and the amount ultimately paid back to the lender. There is nothing magical about this, and it is consistent with the measurement of other tax deductible costs, including the stock-based compensation rules that are being challenged by Senators Levin and Brown.

So, one problem with their bill is that if you believe that the tax deduction for stock-based compensation should be consistent with interest costs, then you should agree that the ultimate cost of stock compensation should be the intrinsic value realized by the employee when the stock options held are recognized. And, in principle, the answer should not change whether the options are net settled, physically settled, or in the form of stock appreciation rights.

The Free Accounting Lesson

The foregoing is so mundane, I feel almost ashamed to have written it. But, I needed to do that to tee up the really interesting part: somehow, these two senators (and probably a few more) are either being grossly disingenuous or are laboring under the mistaken belief that U.S. GAAP on stock-based compensation (Topic 718) must be 'right,' since it was issued by the FASB after a decade of "due process." In point of fact, it is an embarrassing political compromise that was allowed to survive because its most outstanding feature is that it generally reports only a small portion of the full cost to shareholders of such programs (as I explained in the previous section).

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