Definition of backdating
The problem with this practice, according to the SEC, was that stock option backdating, while difficult to prove, could be considered a criminal act.
One of the larger backdating scandals occurred at Brocade Communications, a data storage company.
Options backdating is the practice of altering the date a stock option was granted, to a usually earlier (but sometimes later) date at which the underlying stock price was lower.
This is a way of repricing options to make them valuable or more valuable when the option "strike price" (the fixed price at which the owner of the option can purchase stock) is fixed to the stock price at the date the option was granted.
Corporations, however, have defended the practice of stock option backdating with their legal right to issue options that are already in the money as they see fit, as well as the frequent occurrence in which a lengthy approval process is required.
In 1972, a new revision (APB 25) in accounting rules resulted in the ability of any company to avoid having to report executive incomes as an expense to their shareholders if the income resulted from an issuance of “at the money” stock options.
While this conclusion is logical in cases of options backdating in which executives knowingly participated in the criminal actions, options backdating can be a result of normal accounting or corporate policies that are not criminal in nature, and is a legal practice as long as the backdated contract is appropriately reported for tax purposes.
Academic researchers had long been aware of the pattern, exhibited by some companies, of share prices rising dramatically in the days following grants of stock options to senior management.
It allegedly failed to inform investors, or account for the options expense(s) properly.
To avoid having to pay higher taxes, many companies adopted a policy of issuing “at the money” stock options in lieu of additional income, with the idea that the executive or employee would benefit through the option by working to increase the value of the company without exceeding the one million dollar deductibility cap for executive income.
When company executives discovered that they had the ability to backdate stock option grants, thus making them both tax deductible and “in the money” on the date of actual issuance, the common practice of stock option backdating for financial gain began on a widespread level.
For instance, public companies generally grant stock options in accordance with a formal stock option plan approved by shareholders at an annual meeting.
Many companies' stock option plans provide that stock options must be granted at an exercise price no lower than fair market value on the date of the option grant.