Efforts to conserve an equity plan’s share reserve should begin the day the issuer’s stockholders approve the plan (or share increase), and should continue going forward. Issuers that do not make such efforts tend to face problems relating to dwindling share reserves, including moving to cash-based programs, hiring proxy solicitation firms to garner stockholder support for share increases, and overcoming possible negative reactions from ISS.
The following are some ideas an issuer could use to extend the life of its plan share reserve:1
- Grant awards that are settled in cash – Depending on the terms of the plan, a cash-settled award may not draw from the share reserve.2 An alternative would be settling a portion of the award in shares (e.g., up to target), with any achievement above that settled in cash.
- Grant full value awards like restricted stock or RSUs – Such grants provide greater value to the holder than options or SARs, the latter providing incentive only to the extent the share price exceeds the exercise/strike price, but draw from the share reserve the same as full value awards.3
- Permit net-exercise of stock options – Depending on the terms of the plan, the shares subject to the option that are netted in a net-exercise may not draw from the share reserve. Also, a net-exercise could be helpful to a Section 16 insider to avoid a blackout (i.e., no open market transaction occurs with a net-exercise).4
- Amend the plan to permit maximum withholding – A recent change in accounting rules provides that maximum withholding will not result in liability accounting treatment. Depending on the terms of the plan, withholding of shares to cover taxes may not draw from the share reserve.
- Grant stock-settled SARs rather than options – A stock-settled SAR will provide the same economic result as a net-exercised option, but since a SAR is settled in shares with respect to only the excess over the strike price, fewer shares are burned than with a net-exercised option.
- Use inducement awards for new executive-level hires and certain M&A events – The award must be a material inducement to getting the executive/employee to accept the position. If properly structured, these awards can be made outside of the plan and do not require stockholder approval under NYSE or NASDAQ rules.5
- Implement an ESOP or ESPP – ESOPs, which are subject to ERISA, do not require stockholder approval under NYSE or NASDAQ rules. Depending upon the structure of an ESPP, stockholder approval may be required.6