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Tech workers rally against expensing options

Rally organized by tech industry groups aims to put a human face on debate over how to account for employee stock options.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Stock options helped single mom Teresa Lopez buy a house, buy a car and create college funds for her kids.

And at a rally here Wednesday against a proposal to require companies to "expense" stock options, the Cisco Systems sales account manager warned that others in her situation will not be as fortunate if the plan from the Financial Accounting Standards Board passes.

"The next single mother is not going to benefit," Lopez told a crowd numbering in the hundreds, many of whom had been bused in by other technology companies. "Stock options are not about accountants out in Connecticut (where the FASB is based). Stock options are about me. And they're about you."

Thursday's rally was organized by technology industry groups including TechNet and aimed at putting a human face on a heated but somewhat arcane debate over how to account for employee stock options. Stock options give workers the ability to buy a share of stock at a certain price. When employees cash in stock options, the process dilutes the value of existing shares, making each share worth slightly less money.

Under current rules, companies can disclose the expense of employee stock options in footnotes to financial statements. But earlier this year the FASB, a private group that sets accounting standards, proposed that all forms of share-based payments to employees, including stock options, be recognized as a cost in the income statement.

The board said it is aiming to provide clearer information for investors and that the move would better align U.S. rules with international accounting standards.

But the proposal has drawn fire from the tech industry, which has relied heavily on stock options as a form of compensation. If companies were required to expense stock options, the industry argues, earnings could suffer a large hit. That in turn would force companies to stop issuing options to rank-and-file employees, the industry says, and ultimately crimp America's ability to come up with innovative products.

Another criticism of expensing stock options is that there is no good way to judge the value of options when they are granted.

Online auction company eBay on Thursday said its shareholders rejected a proposal requesting that the company expense the cost of stock options in its annual income statement.

Not all technology companies, though, have rallied around the traditional way of doling out and accounting for options. Microsoft has changed its policy to give employees grants of actual stock that vest over time, rather than stock option grants.

The issue has made its way to Washington. Tech lobbyists are lending their support to a bill called the Stock Option Accounting Reform Act, which would essentially prevent federal securities regulators from recognizing any FASB decision. It would, however, require the expensing of stock options granted to a company's CEO and four other top executives, if the company had annual revenue of at least $25 million.

Backing the measure are legislators representing Silicon Valley. The legislation has the support of prominent Republicans as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Those attending Thursday's lunchtime rally came from companies such as Sun Microsystems, Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems. Many wore yellow T-shirts with the slogan: "I am the face of employee stock options." The rally was held at a plaza not far from where the FASB was holding a public meeting about its draft plan.

One of the speakers at the rally was Sun Microsystems co-founder and senior vice president Andy Bechtolsheim. He said the proposed FASB rule change would hurt start-ups in particular, which often produce vital new technology. The United States can't afford to lose its capacity to innovate, given international competition, Bechtolsheim suggested. "This is the wrong time to kill stock options," he said.