Many companies' stock option plans provide that stock options must be granted at an exercise price no lower than fair market value on the date of the option grant.
If a company grants options on June 1 (when the stock price is $100), but backdates the options to May 15 (when the price was $80) in order to make the option grants more favorable to the grantees, the fact remains that the grants were actually made on June 1, and if the exercise price of the granted options is $80, not $100, it is below fair market value.
As a result, numerous companies are conducting internal investigations to determine if, when, and how backdating occurred, and are filing amended earnings statements and tax forms to show the issuance of “in the money” options in place of the “at the money” options that were previously reported.
This is not always the case, according to a ruling by federal judge William Alsup of the U. District Court for the Northern District of California.
At one extreme, where it is clear that top management was guilty of conscious wrongdoing in backdating, attempted to conceal the backdating by falsifying documents, and where the backdating resulted in a substantial overstatement of the company's profitability, SEC enforcement actions and even criminal charges have resulted.