Receiving stock options or another type of employer equity as part of your compensation package may feel like a windfall. But whether or not that turns out to be the case could depend on how wisely you manage your grant.
Successfully taking advantage of your equity compensation requires the untangling of a number of questions. To start with, you have to understand what kind of company stock or stock options you’ve received, when they vest, and when and how they’re taxed. Only then can you determine what your grant is worth—and decide the best way to fit it into your portfolio, says Rande Spiegelman, Vice President of Financial Planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
Know what you own
The first step toward getting the most from your equity compensation, Rande advises, is to determine the type of equity you have. That will help you understand the terms of ownership and the vesting schedule or other waiting period involved.
One of the most common forms of equity compensation, stock options, offer you just that—the option (but not the obligation) to buy shares in the company. The right to exercise those options usually emerges via a vesting schedule. Once those options have vested, they have value only if the fair market value of the stock is higher than the “exercise price” at which the option allows you to buy the stock. The difference between the list price and exercise price of the option, called the “spread,” represents the amount of money you will make on each option.
Alternatively, you may receive shares of the company outright in the form of restricted stock or restricted stock units (RSUs). A direct transfer of shares may seem simpler than stock options. But it’s important to look at how the structure of each kind of stock grant determines when and how you can cash out your shares.
With restricted stock, the employer grants the stock to the employee upfront, but the employee can sell it only at the end of the vesting period. With RSUs, the employer grants the stock to the employee on a vesting schedule.
Once you understand the type of equity you’ve received, it’s time to consider the taxes. This is especially important, because, as the table above shows, different types of equity compensation can be taxed in very different ways.
Incentive stock options (ISOs), aren’t subject to ordinary income tax when exercised and held for the qualifying period. You must hold shares from ISOs for longer than two years from the grant date and one year from the exercise date for the proceeds to be taxed at the lower capital gains rate, rather than as ordinary income. But in doing so you could end up in alternative minimum tax (AMT) territory, so be sure to coordinate with your personal tax advisor before you make any decisions.
The spread on nonqualified stock options (NQSOs) is taxed as ordinary income at the time the options are exercised. Restricted stock is taxed as ordinary income when it vests, and RSUs are taxed as ordinary income when the employer transfers the stock.
It is worth noting that with ISOs, NQSOs, restricted stock and RSUs, capital gains tax applies to any gain or loss on stock sales made after the investor takes full possession of the shares. Because the tax implications of equity compensation can be complex, it’s worthwhile to consult a tax professional.
What’s it worth?
Once you’ve figured out how your equity compensation works, and how it will be taxed, you can determine what it’s worth.
“For restricted stock, the current after-tax fair market value (FMV) of the restricted shares is a good estimate of its value,” Rande says. “For stock options, you can simply calculate their after-tax, in-the-money value based on the spread to determine their worth.”
As an example: Imagine you work for a large company and have been granted 10,000 shares of nonqualified stock options with a strike price of $10. If the stock trades for $20, and you’re in a 40% combined marginal income tax bracket (federal/state/FICA), that would leave you with a value of $6 per share. (Note: We’re using an after-tax, intrinsic value calculation for simplicity’s sake.)
Armed with an estimate, you can tackle the bigger question of how to fit that company equity into your overall portfolio and equity allocation.
Your employer equity can quickly become a significant portion of your portfolio if it’s not monitored. Generally speaking, you should limit the stock of any one company to 10-15% of your liquid net worth. Beyond that, your portfolio may be exposed to more volatility and risk than necessary for your investing goals and risk tolerance. We recommend that you discuss these risks with your financial advisor.
“Don’t forget about single-company risk and the importance of diversification,” Rande cautions.