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.
Backdating allows executives to choose a past date when the market price was particularly low, thereby inflating the value of the options.
An example illustrates the potential benefit of backdating to the recipient.
Most shareholder approved option plans prohibit in-the-money option grants (and thus, backdating to create in-the-money grants) by requiring that option exercise prices must be no less than the fair market value of the stock on the date when the grant decision is made. For example, because backdating is used to choose a grant date with a lower price than on the actual decision date, the options are effectively in-the-money on the decision date, and the reported earnings should be reduced for the fiscal year of the grant.
(Under APB 25, the accounting rule that was in effect until 2005, firms did not have to expense options at all unless they were in-the-money.
The Wall Street Journal (see discussion of article below) pointed out a CEO option grant dated October 1998.
The number of shares subject to option was 250,000 and the exercise price was (the trough in the stock price graph below.) Given a year-end price of , the intrinsic value of the options at the end of the year was (-) x 250,000 = ,750,000.