Thursday, May 31, 2012

Friendly Accounting at Facebook

This post is courtesy of the Accounting Onion

U. S. Senator Carl Levin recently spoke on the Senate floor, referencing the discrepancy between tax and accounting treatment of stock options in the (then upcoming) Facebook IPO:

"According to its filings, when Facebook goes public, Mr. [Mark] Zuckerberg plans to exercise options to purchase 120 million shares of stock for 6 cents a share. Mr. Zuckerberg's shares, obviously, are going to be worth a great deal more than 6 cents, a total of about $7 million; they will apparently be worth more than 600 times as much, something in the neighborhood of $5 billion.

Here's where the tax loophole comes in. Under current law, Facebook can – perfectly legally – tell investors, the public, and regulators that the stock options he received cost the company a mere 6 cents a share – that's the expense shown on the company's books. [This is wrong – see later.] But the company can also – perfectly legally – later file a tax return claiming that those same options cost the company something close to what the shares actually sell for later on – perhaps $40 a share. And the company can take a tax deduction for that far large [sic] amount. So the books show a highly profitable company – profitable, in part, because of the relatively small expense the company shows on its books for the stock options it grants to its employees. But when it comes time to pay taxes, to pay Uncle Sam, the loophole in the tax code allows the company to take a tax deduction for a far larger expense than they show on their books. …

Now, the end result is that a profitable U.S. corporation – a success story – could end up paying no taxes at all for years, even decades."
To Levin, the Facebook IPO is a dramatic illustration of an inequitable "loophole" in the tax law. As Levin and Sherrod would have it, Facebook's tax deduction for using stock options to compensate executives – as opposed to any other form of compensation – would be essentially zero (that's probably a little dramatic on my part, but the point is the same); yet, Zuckerberg's tax liability when he exercises the options could be somewhere in the area of $3 billion.

The strong implication of Levin's narrative is that the extra amount of expenses would have wiped out every dollar of Facebook's reported net income that it had ever 'earned.' On top of that, there could be other outstanding options held by Zuckerberg and other employees extending way down the organization, which are going to have the same effect on future reported net income.

Which brings me to my second question: For all practical purposes, could Zuckerberg be taking Facebook public at this point in time with no history of profitability, perhaps negative shareholders' equity, and perhaps no hopes for earnings for some for years to come?

My inclination is to say "no," but I can only speculate. So, I will answer that question with another question: Since the FASB's rules understate the economic cost of options granted to employees, did the FASB provide a perverse incentive to Facebook to grant more options (or at terms overly favorable) to employees than it should have?

If one accepts the maxim that "what gets mismeasured gets mismanaged," then the answer to that question should be "YES." The stock option problem lies not with the tax rules that eventually recognize the full cost of the options to shareholders, but with the financial reporting rules that allowed Facebook to grant options without recording their full cost.

Surely, the senators can see that different accounting rules would have wrought different compensation policies from Facebook. Senator Levin would not have had a story to tell and Mark Zuckerberg would be a few billion dollars poorer.

Footnote: It is my distinct pleasure to provide Senator Levin (and his staff) with yet another accounting lesson. The amount of expense to be reported by Facebook is not, as the senator claims, the exercise price of the options (i.e., 6 cents per share). Assuming that the options were issued without any intrinsic value, then their "grant-date present value" (i.e., the amount upon which periodic option expense is measured) could end up being more or less than 6 cents per share. Although this technical correction to Senator Levin's story it doesn't fundamentally change the message, it once again reveals a lack of understanding that makes one question if Senator Levin has an adequate grasp on the issues.