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Pity the humble technology worker. While they were working away at the next modern marvel, the world economy tripped over a pile of foreclosed American houses. The Nasdaq Composite index is now 45 per cent below its peak, and stock options gurgle underwater. So, technology companies, in a list that so far includes Google, Intel, Ebay, AMD and Motorola, have proposed granting new incentives to their staff.
Long a favourite form of Silicon Valley compensation, giving employees the right to buy shares in the future at a fixed price has a chequered history. It is an excellent way to motivate staff when starting a risky business with limited cash, as all concerned share in any success. Yet companies have only been forced to recognise the cost of issuing options on their profit and loss accounts since 2005, and during the technology boom they were sprinkled on workers like confetti. In too many cases, issue dates were illegally backdated to more favourable share prices. And, after the bust, options were merrily repriced with little regard for investor losses.
This time round, tech companies are not rewarding failure in the same way as, say, a banker retiring richly pensioned. Even so, there are more and less shareholder-friendly ways to proceed. For instance, Intel proposed a value-neutral option exchange last week – staff must surrender a handful of old options to get one at the current price. The move also comes in the context of a company-wide pay freeze, and cutbacks to pension contributions.
Contrast that with Google, which in January simply announced that options would be repriced on March 3, at a cost of $460m. Google no doubt has to keep talented staff, but from a company that still refuses to publish much detail about its business, the impression remains of a management that considers its shareholders lucky to be on board.
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