Apple options probe delays annual report

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Apple Computer on Friday delayed its annual report and confirmed that it would be forced to restate its financial results because of accounting problems related to options backdating.

The move came two months after the maker of Macintosh computers and iPod personal music players said it would likely be forced to restate past results because of the scandal.

Apple is among the highest profile companies to have become caught up in options backdating, an apparently widespread pracice in which the value of an options grant is artificially inflated by changing the grant date to coincide with a low point in the value of a company’s shares.

Hundreds of companies are under investigation by US authorities or have launched their own internal probes into the practice. As a result, scores of companies have been forced to restate their rearnings and dozens of top executives have been sacked.

In October, Apple said an internal investigation found that Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and chief executive, was aware of “a few instances” of backdating between 1997 and 2002.

Apple cleared him of any wrong doing, however, because it said he was not aware of backdating’s accounting implications and did not benefit personally from the backdated grants.

Although Mr Jobs was cleared of any wrongdoing by Apple, he still faces scrutiny from the SEC. He also faces questions about options grants at Pixar, the animation studio he sold to Walt Disney this year for $7bn.

“Steve Jobs is kind of iconic. He’s not your ordinary CEO. If it turns out that he’s implicated in some odd way, he might have to step down, but my sense is that’s not likely to happen,” said Roger Kay, analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. “They’ll insulate him in some way. There’s not real reason for him to go down unless he’s directly implicated.”

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, Apple said it was in the process of finailising its restatements. It did not say how big its restatement would be or how many years it might cover.

Christopher Cox, the SEC chairman, has promised to “stamp out” backdating, but the regulatory clampdown thus far has been limited to a hanful of allegedly egregious cases of options abuse.

Apple’s shares were little-changed the wake of the announcement. By mid-day in New York, they had fallen less than 0.1 per cent to $88.50. The shares have risen 23 per cent this year.

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