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Tech companies drowning in 'underwater' stock options

Tech companies drowning in 'underwater' stock options

Execs at the 100 largest publicly-held tech firms haven't seen much stock joy lately. If your options ain't what they used to be, you've got company, new research says.

Stock Options: The extravagant bait that lures many a tech exec from one company to another. The financial object that signifies power and exalted status. The type of monetary cushion that can make for a smooth retirement or impulsive purchase of a beach house on the Pacific.

But what if those stock options become worth less or-gulp-worthless?

That is the reality befalling many a tech firm and exec today, according to a new study. Looking back at options granted within the last decade, stock options at 90 of the 100 largest publicly held technology firms are still underwater-meaning their value is severely decreased or the options are worth nothing. That's according to study by executive compensation consultants Steven Hall & Partners, which used proxy statement data and share prices as of July 31 for the research.

Executives at 21 of the 100 companies are now holding options that have zero value. Steven Hall & Partners analysis showed that for the group as a whole, 57 percent of the options held by these 100 companies' top five executive officers were underwater by an average 42 percent, based on their options' exercise price, notes the study.

However, the "salt on the open wound" for these high-tech companies is this financial whammy (attributable to accounting and CFO mumbo jumbo): The top 100 technology companies (by revenue) are currently expensing, on average, more than $48 million on their income statements for options held by the top five executive officers. So while the average top 100 tech firm is expensing $48 million, the July 31, 2009, intrinsic value of these options averaged only $24 million.

In other words, as a CFO.com article on the study points out, "That means a huge expense has created very little of its intended value, which was supposed to be retaining and motivating high performers."

The Steven Hall & Partners study notes that even with the recent run-up in the U.S. equities market, "significant stock market recovery of a whopping 73 percent is still required to bring the average option just back to break-even level." Better put that Ferrari purchase on hold.

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