Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2016-09, Compensation—Stock Compensation (Topic 718): Improvements to Employee Share-Based Payment Accounting (available at: http://www.fasb.org/cs/ContentServer?c=Document_C&pagename=FASB%2FDocument_C%2 FDocumentPage&cid=1176168028584. 2) permits companies to withhold shares up to the maximum statutory tax rates (once a company is applying all the provisions of ASU 2016-09). Many existing equity compensation plans specifically limit share withholding to the minimum statutory tax rates in order to avoid potentially negative accounting consequences, i.e., liability accounting instead of fixed, grant-date accounting for equity awards. So the question has been raised whether amending an existing equity plan that limits share withholding to the minimum statutory tax rate would pose an issue under the exchanges rules. NYSE and NASDAQ have now both issued guidance on this issue which should help companies as they consider adopting ASU 2016-09 and implementing maximum share withholding.
The NYSE indicates that a rule to add back shares that have never been issued is not a “formula.” Consequently, amending a plan to provide for withholding of shares based on a grantee’s maximum tax rate rather than the statutory minimum tax rate is not a material revision if the withheld shares are never issued, even if the withheld shares are added back to the plan.
But the NYSE also indicates that a rule to add back shares that have actually been issued generally would be considered a formula. Furthermore, the NYSE states that a rule to add back shares that are withheld from restricted stock upon vesting to cover taxes is a formula unless the forfeited shares are immediately cancelled upon vesting. Therefore, if the plan involves a formula, it must be limited to a term of 10 years from the date of the last shareholder approval. Consequently, if a plan sets the share withholding rate at the minimum statutory rate for restricted stock (and other awards where the shares are issued), then a change to increase the share withholding to the maximum statutory rate would be considered a material amendment that would require shareholder approval.
NYSE’s FAQs, including FAQ C-1, can be found at: https://www.nyse.com/publicdocs/nyse/regulation/nyse/equitycompfaqs.pdf
NASDAQ also released guidance on this issue, but failed to specifically address the issue of issued versus unissued equity awards. According to the NASDAQ guidance, an amendment to increase the withholding rate to satisfy tax obligations would not be considered a material amendment to an equity compensation plan. But the guidance then goes on to state that allowing the holder of an award to surrender unissued shares to pay tax withholdings is similar to settling the award in cash at market price, and neither creates a material increase in benefits to participants nor increase the number of shares to be issued under the plan.
The NASDAQ guidance does not specifically address what happens if such a plan amendment is made to permit the surrendering of additional issued shares to pay tax withholding (e.g., restricted stock). I think with the use of the term “unissued” in the NASDAQ guidance that NASDAQ is more than likely taking a similar stance as the NYSE, but some additional clarification from NASDAQ regarding issued share awards would be helpful.
NASDAQ’s FAQS can be found at: https://listingcenter.nasdaq.com/Material_Search.aspx?cid=71&mcd=LQ&sub_cid=114,97,109,101,103
If you are considering amending an existing equity plan to increase the share withholding rate to permit up to the maximum statutory rate (and you will be adopting the other ASU 2016-09 requirements), it is important to analyze the plan’s equity awards to determine if there are any would have issued shares, such as restricted stock. If so, then the plan amendment might be able to be crafted so that it maintains the plan’s existing tax withholding rate for issued share awards and only permits the increased tax withholding for unissued awards and therefore would not necessarily require shareholder approval. Needless to say, companies should check with their legal and accounting advisers before undertaking such a plan amendment to ensure that it can be done without shareholder approval. Alternatively, companies could put the amendment to shareholders for approval, but should recognize that ISS likely will apply its Equity Plan Scorecard policy to the amended plan in making its vote recommendation.
For more information about ASU 2016-09, see this Exequity Client Alert: http://www.exqty.com/uploads/6/9/9/0/69908991/fasb_update_asc_718.pdf