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Options backdating may still occur under the new reporting regulations, but Sarbanes-Oxley compliant backdating is far less likely to be used for dishonest reasons due to the short time frame that is allowed for reporting.
As a result, numerous companies are conducting internal investigations to determine if, when, and how backdating occurred, and are filing amended earnings statements and tax forms to show the issuance of “in the money” options in place of the “at the money” options that were previously reported.
However, if the company granted options with an exercise price below fair market value, there would be a compensation expense that had to be recognized under applicable accounting rules.
If a company backdated its stock options, but failed to recognize a compensation expense, then the company's accounting may not be correct, and its quarterly and annual financial reports to investors may be misleading.
Cases of backdating employee stock options have drawn public and media attention.
According to a study by Erik Lie, a finance professor at the University of Iowa, more than 2,000 companies used options backdating in some form to reward their senior executives between 19.
This is not always the case, according to a ruling by federal judge William Alsup of the U. District Court for the Northern District of California.
According to Alsup’s reasoning and subsequent ruling, it is improper to infer fraudulent activity based solely on the occurrence of options backdating – further facts must be present and proven before the act can be considered to be fraudulent.
In the modern business world, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has all but eliminated fraudulent options backdating by requiring companies to report all options issuances within 2 days of the date of issue.
Toward the other extreme, where the backdating was a result of overly informal internal procedures or even just delays in finalizing the paperwork documenting options grants, not intentional wrongdoing, there is likely to be no formal sanction—although the company may have to restate its financial statements to bring its accounting into compliance with applicable accounting rules.
With respect to the more serious cases of backdating, it is likely that most of the criminal actions that the government intended to bring were brought in 2007.
The SEC’s opinions regarding backdating and fraud were primarily due to the various tax rules that apply when issuing “in the money” stock options versus the much different – and more financially beneficial – tax rules that apply when issuing “at the money” or "out of the money" stock options.
Additionally, companies can use backdating to produce greater executive incomes without having to report higher expenses to their shareholders, which can lower company earnings and/or cause the company to fall short of earnings predictions and public expectations.