ESOs are usually granted at-the-money, i.e., the exercise price of the options is set to equal the market price of the underlying stock on the grant date.
Because the option value is higher if the exercise price is lower, executives prefer to be granted options when the stock price is at its lowest.
This made me think about the possibility that some of the grants had been backdated.
I further found that the overall stock market performed worse than what is normal immediately before the grants and better than what is normal immediately after the grants.
The Wall Street Journal (see discussion of article below) pointed out a CEO option grant dated October 1998.
A particularly interesting example is that of Micrel Inc.A 2004 NY Times article describes this case in greater detail (the article is available here), and so does a 2006 article in Tax Notes Magazine (available here).In a 2004 CNBC interview, Remy Welling said that "this particular -- well, it's called a 30-day look-back plan, is even widespread in Silicon Valley and maybe throughout the country."The terms "spring loading" and "bullet dodging" refer to the practices of timing option grants to take place before expected good news or after expected bad news, respectively. This is what Professor Yermack hypothesized in his article discussed above, though he never used these terms.However, under the new FAS 123R, the expense is based on the fair market value on the grant date, such that even at-the-money options have to be expensed.) Because backdating is typically not reflected properly in earnings, some companies that have recently admitted to backdating of options have restated earnings for past years. The exercise price affects the basis that is used for estimating both the company's compensation expense for tax purposes and any capital gain for the option recipient.Thus, an artificially low exercise price might alter the tax payments for both the company and the option recipient.