HOLMES REPORT: Corporate objections to planned FASB stock option regulations are hard to comprehend

Usually, when business leaders fight regulation I understand why, even when I think it's short-sighted or stupid.

Usually, when business leaders fight regulation I understand why, even when I think it's short-sighted or stupid.

I understand, for example, why US beef producers still fight meaningful safety inspections, even though it costs them billions of dollars in lost exports to countries that would like some assurance that they aren't importing mad cow disease. It's because their knee-jerk opposition to even the mildest regulatory change outweighs any rational cost-benefit analysis. But I can't for the life of me understand why corporations - particularly those in the tech sector - oppose new rules governing the expensing of stock options proposed by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which is responding to concerns over reporting practices resulting from the financial scandals of recent years. Opponents of the FASB proposal use two main arguments. The first is that if companies are forced to expense stock options, they will simply stop offering them to employees. Venture capitalist John Doerr, in testimony to Congress, said, "Broad-based employee stock ownership, which I contend will disappear if expensing is mandated ... delivers higher returns to shareowners of companies who use them, produces higher productivity, higher returns on equity, higher returns on assets, counting the effect of dilution." I don't dispute the value of broad-based employee stock ownership to the innovation culture or to employees, but I do question Doerr's insistence that it will disappear if companies are forced to account for it. Why should it? Options won't cost any more. The actual amounts companies pay when options vest won't change. The only thing that will change is that investors will know about options by reading the balance sheet, rather than by poring through footnotes. Is Doerr suggesting that options only have value as long as companies don't have to come clean about them? (If he is, he might want to talk to companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Netflix, which have decided to stop hiding the truth from shareholders and have not yet suffered any crippling blow to their ability to innovate.) The second argument is even more spurious: the contention that since there is no universal method of valuing options, we needn't try to value them at all. Of course, there is debate over how options should be valued and how their value may shift over time, but there is one thing for sure: Their value isn't nothing, which is what the current tack wants us to believe. We may not get a perfect truth, but at least we can avoid that perfect fiction. If the technology sector is truly innovative, as its leaders say it is, it will not be derailed by more transparent accounting rules.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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