House Limits Stock Option Expensing to Top 5 Officers

A much-discussed proposal to require public companies to treat all stock options as business expenses has been put on hold by the House of Representatives.

In a 312-111 vote Tuesday, the House approved a bill that delays new rules pending an economic study, the Wall Street Journal reported. The move rejects the recommendation of the independent Financial Accounting Standards Board and supports technology companies that objected to the proposal.

The bill would not prevent companies from treating stock options as expenses if they wish – that’s no change from the current rules. Most companies note the option awards in a footnote to their quarterly financial statements.

The bill, however, would require companies to report the value of stock options granted to the five highest-paid executive officers starting next year. The bill also blocks the FASB-proposed mandates pending results of an economic study by the Commerce and Labor Departments.

FASB has recommended that the cost of stock options — the right to buy or sell stock for a set price at a future date — should be deducted from profit in corporate income statements. Critics of stock options say they tempt executives to use accounting maneuvers to inflate stock prices.

Supporters call the bill a good compromise. While it requires more information on executive compensation, it does not change how options are handled for rank-and-file employees, they say.

Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called the bill "pro-worker" because it will protect 14 million employees who now receive stock options. Start-up technology companies, short on up-front cash, use stock options as form of compensation to attract top talent. If the stock goes up, employees can prosper.

The bill is opposed by some heavy hitters, including Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson, who oppose congressional meddling in the issue.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said congressional interference would turn U.S. generally accepted accounting principles into "generally political accounting principles" that produce dishonest corporate financial reports. "The users of accounting information do not want this bill," he said.

Supporters of the House bill are optimistic about its success in the Senate despite opposition from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Al.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel D-Ill., blasted Congress for getting involved in corporate accounting rules while ignoring its real work. "No wonder Americans are so cynical about what we do around here," Emanuel said during the House debate.

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