Apple shares steady after Jobs cleared

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Shareholders in Apple Computer on Thursday took a wait-and-see approach in the first day of trading after the company said an internal investigation had cleared Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive, of any wrongdoing in options backdating at the computer maker.

Shares in the company fell 0.7 per cent on Thursday to $74.83, a day after Apple said a group of independent directors found Mr Jobs was aware of “a few instances” of improper options backdating between 1997 and 2002. The company’s investigation had concluded that Mr Jobs was unaware of the accounting implications of backdating and had not benefited personally from it.

The independent directors behind the investigation are understood to include Al Gore, the former US vice-president, and Jerry York, former chief financial officer of IBM and Chrysler. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, joined the probe after he became a member of the Apple board in August, according to a person familiar with the matter. Apple declined to comment.

Analysts on Thursday expressed cautious optimism that Mr Jobs might emerge unscathed by backdating, a practice in which the grant dates of stock options are manipulated to coincide with low points in the value of a company’s shares.

More than 100 companies have come under investigation by US authorities in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest scandals since the dotcom bubble burst.

“Although Steve Jobs may be tainted by the admission that he knew of favourable grant dates, ultimately we suspect his tenure as CEO is likely to continue, assuming regulators concur with the assertion that he was unaware of accounting implications,” says Richard Farmer, an analyst at Merrill Lynch.

That assumption will be put to the test as investigators at the US Securities and Exchange Commission pore over the company’s investigation, which included interviews with more than 40 current and former employees, directors and advisers.

For now, it appears unlikely Mr Jobs or others in the Apple management team will come under the thumb of criminal authorities. Thus far, prosecutors have brought criminal cases against former executives at just two companies. In both cases, executives are alleged to have engaged in schemes to intentionally mislead shareholders about the true dates of options grants.

Apple said on Wednesday that of 15 suspicious grants, only one involved options granted to Mr Jobs. That grant was later cancelled.

But it said its investigation had raised “serious concerns” about the activities of two former officials. A spokesman declined to identify the officials on Thursday.

The company, which is notorious for its secrecy, said it had accepted the resignation of Fred Anderson, the co-founder of Elevation Partners, a private equity group, who joined the Apple board after serving as the company’s chief financial officer from 1996 to 2004.

Roger McNamee, a fellow co-founder of Elevation, on Thursday defended Mr Anderson: “I have known Fred as a friend and a business associate for many years. During this time, I have been impressed with his thoroughness, his uncompromising character and the high professional standards to which he has held himself.”

Even if Mr Jobs escapes unscathed from the options mess at Apple, he could face further questions over possible backdating at Pixar, the animation studio he sold to Disney this year.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that an analysis of options grants at Pixar indicated that top executives had received options grants priced at the stock’s annual lows in four years between 1997 and 2003. The report said Mr Jobs never received options from Pixar.

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