According to the 2010 General Social Survey, approximately 8.7% of Americans in the private sector have Employee Stock Options. More have restricted stock, restricted stock units, phantom shares, and so on. The odds that you own them yourself are good especially if you are in senior management. If you are among the lucky few, it is a financial opportunity to build wealth in a way that is difficult with a regular salary. However, because of their special nature Employee Stock Options require special planning.
Employee stock options allow you to purchase your employer’s stock at a pre-determined price. When you exercise the option and purchase the stock you are expected to make a profit. As you ascend in seniority, you are likely to receive more employee stock options and eventually they may form a large portion of your compensation.
A long time ago when I used to receive employee stock options, a mentor instructed me that ESO were a unique opportunity for an employee to build wealth. I agree. However, employee stock options are more complicated than traditional financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, or 401(k) accounts. Their actual value can be volatile, and the impact on your portfolio wealth uncertain if you do not plan for it.
Five key steps to watch are:
1. Know what you have
Consider what kind of instrument you have. Most people get Non Qualified Stock Options (NQSO); others get Incentive Stock Options (ISO). The major difference is how and when they are taxed. It is important to know what you have so you can plan accordingly
2. Plan for taxes
The good news is that employee stock options receive tax benefits under current Federal law. The down side is that you will eventually owe taxes. NQSO are taxed as ordinary income when they vest. They also incur payroll taxes. ISO are taxed when the underlying stock is sold, i.e. after you have exercised the stock. If you sell the stock more than one year after you exercise it, it will usually be taxed at capital gains rate. With planning you can make sure that you are ready for the impact.
3. Beware of the risks of ownership
Owning Employee Stock Options may carry additional risks, especially as you get more of them. As Wealth Strategists we recommend that you should not concentrate too much of your wealth in a single stock. As an employee you are already exposed to the risk of your employer: you work there and you depend on your employer for your income. You need to evaluate how much more of that risk you can afford. If in addition to having employee options you also own stock in your employer either directly or in the company 401k, we need to talk!
Of course employee stock options need to vest before you can do anything about them. However, when they vest you can mitigate the concentration risk by diversifying or selling a portion in the most tax efficient manner, then reallocating the proceeds to other investments.
4. Harvest your gains
The optimal time to exercise employee stock options and sell them, is soon after they vest, with allowance added for the tax differences. According to Options Pricing Theory, beloved of MBAs, gains can be maximized by postponing exercise until shortly before expiration. In practice, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: you never know when the next market downturn is coming.
5. Plan for Re-investment
Two pressing problems at exercise time are: 1) where to get the money to pay the taxes, and 2) what to do with the proceeds.
One example of a way to handle can be to balance the additional income from stock options with a temporary increase in 401k or IRA contributions. The additional 401k contribution reduces your taxable income, as well as your cash flow. That is balanced by the increase in taxable income and cash flow that comes from the exercised options or sold stock.
In that way your tax level may remain at equivalent levels. And you will have stored away the gain.
Option wealth comes with many complex issues to consider. However, it is an exciting opportunity for you and your family to build or fortify a nest egg and further secure your financial future. As Wealth Managers our primary goal is to help you plan strategically to maximize the value of this unique opportunity.
(a version of this post appeared on boston.com).