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Ask Money

Stock options

Chris Farrell Oct 29, 2009

Question: My husband is a mid level executive and he receives stock options yearly as part of his compensation. Since the stock prices have been continually declining at his company, we now have five year’s worth of options we are unable to exercise. Aside from the stock price increasing, is there any way we will be able to recoup this money? Mary, Milwaukee, WI

Answer: Your husband’s situation isn’t uncommon among publicly-traded companies. Many executives now hold stock options that are worthless because the “exercise” price is greater than the market value of the underlying stock. In other words, you’d lose money if you exercised the options. The Wall Street metaphor for this experience is that the options are “underwater”. Descriptive, isn’t it?

There’s nothing your husband or you can do. It’s really up to management and the board. They can decide to leave the current option awards program unchanged. In that case, everyone will have to wait and see if the stock price improves before the option grant expires. The employee optionholders remain in the same financial boat as shareholders. However, some companies have decided to take a different tact. They are rewarding employees by substituting their old underwater options for newer ones with a lower exercise price, retiring the options and issuing restricted stock, or by exchanging cash for the options.

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