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Equity Awards Granted to U.S. Participants by Non-U.S. Entities Can Lead to Unintended Consequences

Because of the various benefits, securities, and tax laws that apply to equity awards, what may be permissible (and even commonplace) in one jurisdiction, may be problematic in another. Accordingly, whenever an issuer desires to issue equity awards to service providers (e.g., employees or contractors) in a different jurisdiction, the issuer should engage benefits, securities, and tax counsel in all relevant jurisdictions early in the process to avoid any unanticipated issues that could negatively impact the value or purpose of the awards. For example, a common issue occurs when the issuer is an entity outside of the United States, but equity awards will also be made to service providers in the United States. Under U.S. tax law, there are specific requirements for determining the exercise price of stock options and stock appreciation rights (under Section 409A of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (“Section 409A”)) that require the exercise price to… Continue Reading

Ordinary Employee Benefits Issues That Can Cause Extraordinary Problems in M&A Deals

Employee benefits rarely drive corporate transactions, but if the benefits of a target company are not reviewed carefully, they can sometimes derail the transaction.  Even some of the most routine facets of benefit plan administration can result in significant potential financial exposure (e.g., additional employer contributions, taxes, penalties, and fees as well as fees associated with the preparation and filing of IRS and DOL correction program applications) that could negatively affect the overall value of the target company. By identifying issues early in the transaction, the seller can prevent costly purchase price reductions and identify issues that need correction, while the buyer can avoid overpaying for a target and ensure that representation and warranty insurance will be available to cover potential claims. Some of those routine compliance issues include, but are not limited to, the following: Failing to timely file an annual Form 5500.  The DOL can assess a penalty… Continue Reading

Proceed with Caution When Modifying Equity-Based Performance Awards

Most equity-based performance awards for employees that will vest at the end of 2020 were granted well before the COVID-19 pandemic began (in fact, many were granted two years or more before the pandemic), and none of the performance metrics for these awards likely anticipated the havoc the pandemic has caused to the companies’ financial and stock performance. In many cases, the pandemic has rendered these equity-based performance awards worthless to employees because the performance metrics are not even remotely achievable. Yet, employees have been working harder than ever to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Some employers looking for ways to continue to reward and retain employees are eyeing modifications of existing equity-based performance awards to either lower the target and stretch performance goals or to eliminate the performance requirement completely, at least for awards vesting in 2020 (making the awards solely time-based). Before proceeding with any such modifications,… Continue Reading

The DOL Says Certain Private Equity Investments May Be Permissible Designated Investment Alternatives Under Individual Accounts Plans

On June 3, 2020, the DOL issued an information letter addressing the possibility of including a private equity type investment as a “designated investment alternative” under a participant directed individual account plan. The DOL concluded that, as a general matter, “a plan fiduciary would not . . . violate [ERISA’s fiduciary duties] solely because the fiduciary offers a professionally managed asset allocation fund with a private equity component as a designated investment alternative for an ERISA covered individual account plan in the manner described in [the] letter.” The DOL observed that private equity investments “involve more complex organizational structures and investment strategies, longer time horizons, and more complex, and typically, higher fees” and they generally have “different regulatory disclosure requirements, oversight, and controls” and “often have no easily observed market value.” In addition to these considerations, the DOL listed several factors that plan fiduciaries should evaluate when considering whether a… Continue Reading

IRS Issues Memorandum Providing Guidance on Income Inclusion, FICA, and Income Tax Withholding for Stock-Settled Equity Awards

The IRS recently issued Generic Legal Advice Memorandum No. AM 2020-004 (the “GLAM”) to address when income from nonqualified stock options, stock-settled stock appreciation rights, and stock-settled restricted stock units is (i) includable in an employee’s gross income, (ii) subject to FICA taxes, and (iii) subject to federal income tax withholding. In addition, the GLAM provides a discussion of the deposit rules for FICA and income tax withholdings that have been withheld with respect to such equity awards, including the “One-Day” rule (or the Next-Day Deposit Rule) that requires employers to deposit employment taxes on the next banking day after $100,000 or more in employment taxes have been accumulated. The GLAM provides a series of illustrative examples and analyses of such issues. The GLAM does not, however, address the impact of an employer’s ability to defer employment tax deposits under Section 2302 of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security… Continue Reading

Evaluating Performance Goals and Incentive Compensation in Light of COVID-19

Boards and compensation committees will be reevaluating their incentive compensation arrangements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting market uncertainty. Both long-term and short-term incentive plans can lose motivational and retention value if the performance goals are unachievable or if they do not align with market reality. Companies that have not yet established performance goals for their 2020 equity and bonus awards should carefully consider market conditions and shareholder perception before establishing goals, focusing on motivating their executives with pay for performance that aligns with shareholders’ interests, while giving the company flexibility to navigate through uncharted territory. To the extent possible, companies should also consider delaying the issuance of incentive compensation awards until there is more stability in the business and in the financial markets. Companies that have already established goals for their 2020 awards (or that are evaluating the continued effectiveness of performance goals for prior year… Continue Reading

Recent Guidance on Compensation Practices from Glass Lewis in Light of COVID-19

On March 26, 2020, Glass Lewis released its governance report discussing its approach to corporate governance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, Glass Lewis expects all governance issues to be impacted by COVID-19 and will be taking a pragmatic approach to corporate governance and voting on affected proposals, prioritizing disclosure and timing and certainty on such matters, and exercising discretion as appropriate. Glass Lewis states in the report that: “The stark reality is that for many workers, including executives, they should not expect to be worth as much as they were before the crisis, because their free market value as human capital has now changed. There is a heavy burden of proof for boards and executives to justify their compensation levels in a drastically different market for talent . . . Trying to make executives whole at even further expense to shareholders and other employees is… Continue Reading

Eligible Recipients of Incentive Stock Options

Granting “incentive stock options” qualifying under Section 422 of the Internal Revenue Code (“ISOs”) can often result in more favorable tax treatment to the recipient, provided that the recipient holds the option and the optioned shares for the required period of time. When granting ISOs, it is important to make sure that the plan document and administrative procedures only permit such options to be granted to eligible recipients. For purposes of ISOs, eligible recipients are limited to employees of a granting corporation (or its subsidiaries that are corporations). Independent contractors, non-employee directors, and employees of entities that are not corporations for tax purposes are ineligible to receive ISOs.

Ordinary Equity Issuances to Company Insiders Can Result in HSR Act Violations and Penalties

Directors, officers, and other persons who directly or indirectly hold common stock worth close to or more than $80.8 million (the threshold amount for 2017) should consult legal counsel before acquiring any more shares to determine if compliance with the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, as amended (the “HSR Act“), is required prior to completing any additional acquisitions. In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have more aggressively enforced the HSR Act, including inadvertent failures to file that occur when an insider of a company with significant equity value acquires a small number of shares-whether through a restricted stock grant, shares issued as director compensation, the exercise of a stock option, open market purchases, or otherwise. For example, in January 2017, the agencies imposed a fine of $780,000 on an individual who was a founder, officer, and director of a company for his… Continue Reading

ISS 2017 Global Voting Policy Survey Results

Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (“ISS”) recently released the results of its annual global voting policy survey. Respondents include institutional investors, corporate issuers, as well as consultants and advisors to public companies. Survey responses provide helpful insight into the current views of influential institutional investors in addition to signaling changes to ISS voting policies. This year’s survey was light on executive compensation related questions but did provide helpful feedback on two topics. (1) Frequency of Say-on-Pay: 66 percent of institutional investors favor annual say on pay votes, consistent with current ISS policy. (2) Pay for Performance Metrics: 79 percent of institutional investors support the incorporation of financial metrics, in addition to total shareholder returns, into the ISS pay-for-performance models that identify potential misalignments between CEO pay and company performance. The three most popular alternatives were return on investment metrics (e.g., return on invested capital), return metrics (e.g., return on assets or… Continue Reading

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