Should I still participate in my company’s Employee Stock Purchase Plan- Even When the Stock Price is Trending Down?

Tech stocks have had a terrible year thus far. So far this year, the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index is down 23%. Among the worst-hit have been (-25%), Tesla (-32%), Meta (-42%), Zoom (-40%), and Shopify (-74%). We’ve been hearing from so many of you about whether to continue to participate in your company’s employee stock purchases plan (ESPP) when the company stock is declining.

Using the Apple ESPP to illustrate how it works

Essentially, a company that offers an employee stock purchase plan is giving its employees the option to buy the company stock at a discount. Let’s use the Apple ESPP as an example. Suppose your base salary is $200,000. You can contribute up to 10% of that salary – in this example up to $20,000 (ESPP contributions are capped at $25,000 per year, based on the full fair market value of the stock). 

At the start of each purchase period, which goes for 6 months, Apple will withhold the percentage you elect. At the end of each purchase period, they will use the funds withheld over the prior 6 months to purchase stock at a discount. The amount you pay for the shares is the lower of two prices—the offering date price or the purchase date price—plus an additional 15% discount. Apple has their 2 purchase dates as January 31st and July 31st. 

The amount you pay for the shares is the lower of two prices—the offering date price or the purchase date price—plus an additional 15% discount.

Here is an illustration that shows what the timeline for Apple’s ESPP looks like.

Note: Apple’s offering period and purchase period are the same, though that’s not always true. 

In this example, if you had participated between August 1st, 2021 and January 31, 2022, you would be purchasing at a discount on the lower price from August 1st. On January 31, Apple would use the $10,000 withheld and purchase Apple stock at 15% less than the August 1st price of $145.52 (80 shares of AAPL. Note: Apple does not allow the purchase of fractional shares in their ESPP). 

If you sell immediately, at the market value on January 31st ($174.78), you gross roughly $14,000. You’ve immediately gained almost $4,000, which will be taxed at whatever your ordinary income tax rate is. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume you’re in the 35% tax bracket, so you’ve netted a little more than $2,500. Not bad!

Money withheld from your paycheck$10,000
Share price on August 1, 2021$145.52
Share price on January 31, 2022$174.78
# of shares purchased on January 3180
Sales proceeds (80 shares x $174.78)$13,982
Estimated tax @ 35%$1,394
Net proceeds$2,588

What if the stock price had actually gone down from August to February? 

You would still get a discount on the lower stock value, but it would be worth less when you sell and you would only gain the 15% discount. Let’s imagine the stock prices were reversed- $174.78 on August 1st and $145.52 on January 31st. You would still receive 80 shares of AAPL stock, but you would only be able to sell it for about $11,600. Again paying 35% tax on the gain, you would net about $750. Still better than nothing but quite a bit less than the first example.

Money withheld from your paycheck$10,000
Share price on August 1, 2021$174.78
Share price on February 28, 2022$145.52
# of shares purchased on March 180
Sales proceeds (80 shares x $145.52)$11,642
Estimated tax @ 35%$407
Net proceeds$757

In a market where your company stock is trending down, the maximum gain you would realize over a 6-month period is $12,500 (50% of the annual IRS limit) less $10,625 (50% of the maximum annual contribution, assuming a 15% discount) or $1,875- and that’s before you pay taxes.

Tax Implications: Selling the shares immediately

In the above examples, I assume you sell the shares as soon as you’re able (which is very close to immediately after the end of the offering period). This is considered a non-qualifying disposition, and you’re required to pay ordinary income tax rates on whatever the discount amount is. 

Tax Implications: Holding onto to the stock for more than a year

If you hold the stock for a full year from the purchase date, and 2 years from the beginning of the offering period in which you purchased shares, then the stock would be eligible for a qualifying disposition. In this instance, any gain would be taxed at long term capital gains rates, which are more favorable than ordinary income tax rates. Many people are enticed by the possibility of paying lower taxes, but holding the stock for longer is risky, and you might have no gain at all, or even a loss.

There is very little risk involved in participating in an ESPP if you sell the stock right away. If you hold the stock, your risk increases significantly.

Factors to consider

One of the most relevant issues here is- can you afford to have that reduction in every paycheck for the 6 month period before reaping the benefits at the end? For some folks, this is a fantastic way to automate savings. It enforces a certain behavior and then at the end of 6 months you can sell your company stock and invest how you see fit. In other cases, you just can’t afford to take a reduced salary. Given the limited benefit when the stock is trending downward, if the regular paycheck deductions present a challenge, I would likely not participate in the ESPP.

The other consideration is having too much exposure to your company stock. If you’re already receiving Restricted Stock Units or stock options, you may have a large portion of your portfolio in one stock. Add to this the fact that your salary and benefits are tied to this same company, it can get pretty risky.

How should I decide?

To recap, some pros of participating:

  • Enforced savings
  • Free money! Admittedly, LESS free money when the stock price is on a downward trend.

And cons:

  • Concentration risk
  • Increased tax complexity
  • Reduced cash flow
  • Potential volatility if you hold the stock
  • The manual process of selling and then reinvesting into some other vehicle (or as I like to call it, the “hassle factor”).

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with ESPPs, but they are often worth doing, even in a down market. The potential benefit is quite small, but if you can afford to participate, it might be a good idea regardless of the way the stock is trending.