Let's start with a simple definition of stock options:
Stock options from your employer give you the right to buy a specific number of shares of your company's stock during a time and at a price that your employer specifies.
Both privately and publicly held companies make options available for several reasons:
- They want to attract and keep good workers.
- They want their employees to feel like owners or partners in the business.
- They want to hire skilled workers by offering compensation that goes beyond a salary. This is especially true in start-up companies that want to hold on to as much cash as possible.
Let's look at a real world example to help you understand how this might work. Say Company X gives or grants its employees options to buy 100 shares of stock at $5 a share. The employees can exercise the options starting Aug. 1, 2001. On Aug. 1, 2001, the stock is at $10. Here are the choices for the employee:
- The first thing an employee can do is convert the options to stock, buy it at $5 a share, then turn around and sell all the stock after a waiting period specified in the options' contract. If an employee sells those 100 shares, that's a gain of $5 a share, or $500 in profit.
- Another thing an employee can do is sell some of the stock after the waiting period and keep some to sell later. Again, the employee has to buy the stock at $5 a share first.
- The last choice is to change all the options to stock, buy it at the discounted price and keep it with the idea of selling it later, maybe when each share is worth $15. (Of course, there's no way to tell if that will ever happen.)
- You get options on 100 shares of stock in your company.
- The vesting schedule for your options is spread out over four years, with one-fourth vested the first year, one-fourth vested the second, one-fourth vested the third, and one-fourth vested the fourth year.
- This means you can buy 25 shares at the grant or strike price the first year, then 25 shares each year after until you're fully vested in the fourth year.
Another thing to know about options is that they always have an expiration date: You can exercise your options starting on a certain date and ending on a certain date. If you don't exercise the options within that period, you lose them. And if you are leaving a company, you can only exercise your vested options; you will lose any future vesting.
One question you might have is: How does a privately held company establish a market and grant (strike) price on each share of its stock? This might be especially interesting to know if you are or might be working for a small, privately held company that offers stock options. What the company does is to fix a price that is related to the internal value of the share, and this is established by the company's board of directors through a vote.
Overall, you can see that stock options do have risk, and they are not always better than cash compensation if the company is not successful, but they are becoming a built-in feature in many industries.
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