What to Know Before Exercising Your Pre-IPO Stock Options

For those with stock options as part of their employee compensation package, here are some stock option basics and tax implications to keep in mind as you navigate the possibilities of initial public offerings.

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First of all, if you are reading this for personal financial reasons, then congratulations. As a recipient of employer stock options, you have the opportunity to own shares of your company. Stock options can be a powerful wealth-builder. If granted, chances are you have a windfall headed your way. Be sure to have a plan in place regarding the exercise of those options and subsequent sale of stock.

There are several considerations that should factor prominently in your decision-making process. These actions may have major tax implications and, if done improperly, could effectively reduce the amount of that windfall.

When formulating a plan to exercise your stock options, there are some important questions to ask: What exactly is your stock option? When can you move on that stock? What are the tax implications? What valuation does your company have?

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Stock Options

Understanding what type of stock options you own is significant when considering your financial position and determining your next move. Stock options come in a few varieties. Incentive stock options (ISOs) are a company benefit that give an employee the right to buy shares at a discounted price, while delaying taxes due until those shares are sold. With non-qualified stock options (NSOs) taxes are due both when you exercise the option (purchase shares) and sell those shares.

Another common employee compensation package is restricted stock units (RSUs). RSUs give an employee interest in company stock but have no tangible value until vesting is complete. It is important to know which type of options you have, and the implications of each.

Timing the Sale of Your Stock

Be sure to understand the earliest date at which your stock can be sold as a long-term capital gain. This tax-advantaged rate applies to stock held more than one year. Additionally, two years must have passed since the option to buy those shares was granted. Remember, you may have a post-IPO lockup period during which you will not be able to sell stock. A lockup period is a window of time when company insiders are not allowed to redeem or sell shares of their company. Lockup periods can vary but typically span six months post-offering.

A common strategy is exercising options six months before the IPO, which starts your stock holding period. Assuming a six-month lockup, any stock you sell thereafter will be taxed as a long-term gain, as you have now held the stock for one year. This strategy gives you flexibility to exit your position at the lower capital gains rate and earliest calendar date possible if you have concerns about your company’s prospects or need liquidity. On the contrary, if you think the stock could soar, you can hold it. Regardless, the early exercise of options gives you, well, options.

Plan Ahead for Alternative Minimum Tax Issues

If you exercise ISOs be aware of the rules surrounding the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT.) The AMT applies to taxpayers with high income by setting a limit on deductions and exclusions. It helps to ensure that certain taxpayers pay at least a minimum amount of tax.

If you are subject to the AMT, exercising ISOs may count against you in the year in which they are exercised, so take into account the probability that your company will be successfully brought to market. Early exercise could negatively affect your balance sheet if the IPO is delayed or canceled and you were planning to pay that AMT with proceeds from the sale of stock to the public. For example, COVID-19 surely threw a wrench in the gears of recent IPOs such as Airbnb and likely in the plans of many executives standing to profit from it.

On the other hand, if you pay AMT on exercised ISOs when company stock is low, you may not get hit with it again after selling the stock at a later date. If it soars after the IPO, then exercising and paying AMT early would have been a smart move.

Valuation: Get an Idea of What Shares Are Worth

In the public stock market, there is a published bid-ask spread for each security throughout the trading day, thus providing a means of valuation for a stock or option. In the private marketplace, the valuation of a company is less clear because it is calculated infrequently. While there are some “exchanges” for private shares, transactions occur infrequently, and the bid-ask spread is often wide. You could certainly estimate based upon the most recent funding round or Venture Capital firm valuation.

Additionally, many private company values are based on the most recent 409(a) valuation. A 409(a) is an independent appraisal of the fair market value (FMV) of a private company’s common stock. Long story short: You can’t make a decision to exercise an option without understanding what a share of stock is worth.

Hire a Pro

DIY projects frequently end up costing a homeowner more money than just hiring a pro in the first place. As you review your stock options, it's important to consider all variables. Having a team of trusted advisers by your side who can properly evaluate your stock options, portfolio and goals can bring you confidence that you are making informed decisions.

A certified public accountant (CPA), a financial planner and estate attorney should be vital members of your decision-making team when navigating your ownership interests from private to public. A CPA can typically model your estimated tax liabilities given your unique circumstances. If your windfall is substantial enough, a financial planner and estate attorney will strive to ensure your wealth is preserved for yourself and future generations through proper planning. Be sure to hire the right person for the job — preferably someone who has dealt with the complex circumstances surrounding private stock, stock options and IPOs.

Every company is different, as is every IPO. It is important to read the fine print regarding your rights and requirements as the holder of options or stock in a private company before deciding what to do in the months before and after an IPO. If uncertain, be sure to consult professionals with experience in this area.

Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice, tax advice or recommendations for any individual. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax adviser. Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Adviser, Member FINRA/SIPC.

Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment adviser. Member FINRA/SIPC.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Brian Murphy
Market Strategist/Investment Manager, Frazier Investment Management

Brian Murphy is a Market Strategist and Investment Manager at Frazier Investment Management (opens in new tab)in Southern Rhode Island. Before joining the Frazier team, he served in the U.S. Navy for 11 years as a carrier jet pilot. Brian has experience managing several different strategies and products, including equity, fixed income, long/short portfolios and options. He believes that managing risk is the key to successful outcomes and works with clients nationwide to achieve their investing goals.