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 Amazon.com (-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
Gain$3,982
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
Gain$1,164
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.

What Should You do with Extra Cash?

One of the questions we get asked all the time is “where should I keep my emergency reserve (aka rainy day fund)?” or “What should I do with my extra cash?”

How Can I Get My Cash to “Work for me?”

If you haven’t already, I suggest setting an emergency reserve target. I generally recommend establishing a target of 3-6 months of living expenses. Although, like with all things related to personal finance, this is a highly individual decision and there is no right answer. There are many factors that can influence the target, including whether you are a single-income household or have highly variable income.

Before we move on, let’s establish up front that you’re already in good shape with regards to consumer debt (i.e. you don’t have significant credit card bills). That said, it bears mentioning that it is possible to build your emergency reserve and pay down high interest debt at the same time.

Where to keep your emergency reserve

High Yield Savings

My top recommendation for an emergency reserve (as of this writing) is a high-yield savings account. I always check bankrate.com for the best rates and as of April 2022, most banks are offering something like .60% – .70%. I prefer this account being separate from whichever bank you use for your checking account; I like the idea of it being ever so slightly harder to access these funds. Please do not be fooled by Bank of America (and some of the other big banks) whose “high yield” savings account actually only earns .05% interest. Don’t get me started on the inaccuracy of that claim!

CDs

In the past, CDs were a reasonable option for an emergency reserve. I, myself, used to have laddered CDs that came up each quarter, which I would then renew. Based on the current rates, CD rates are only fractionally higher than high yield savings accounts, so there’s no compelling reason to have your money “tied up” in a CD.

I Bonds

I bonds are all the rage the past few months. Rates are at 7.12% through April 2022 and will increase to an estimated 9.62% in May which is frankly jaw-dropping! 

There are a few stipulations that you should be aware of: 

  • The rates reset every 6 months. The current rate is good on new I bonds purchased through April 2022. 
  • You can only buy $10,000 in I bonds per individual, per year. Depending on how much your emergency reserve target is, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to buy enough I bonds to hit that target, but you could always supplement with a regular high-yield savings account.
  • Note: You can cash the bond in after 12 months. However, if you cash it in before it is five years old, you lose the last three months of interest. So it’s not quite as liquid as a traditional savings account. 

Finally, in my opinion, it’s quite a bit of work! But if you’re up for the extra logistical steps required, you can buy bonds directly from the US Treasury.

Beyond the emergency reserve

Ok so you have a high yield savings account set up for your emergency reserve. Go you! What about any extra cash? How and where should you keep it?

Cash for short-term needs

Here’s where we start to talk about timing. Let’s take a step back and revisit your goals. What is that cash for? Are you earmarking it for something in the next, say, 3 years? (Think new car, big vacation or significant house project). If so, you should probably keep it in cash. The above ideas are still great options for anything you’ll need in the next 3 years. I know, I know, you really don’t want your cash “just” sitting there. I get it. However, this is where I get to put on my financial planner hat and remind you that investing in the stock market is inherently risky. If you invest excess cash (which you know you’ll need in the short term) and the market takes a nosedive, you could be in a real bind. In other words, you may have to sell for less than what you put in and/or less than you need.

FDIC Insurance

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention FDIC insurance, and the importance of making sure your emergency reserve (and other cash) is fully insured. Federal limits provide FDIC insurance of up to $250,000 per individual, per institution. If you’re single, that’s pretty straightforward: $250,000 per bank. If you have more than $250,000, be sure to open an additional account at a different bank to make sure all your funds are insured.

If you’re married, you can have up to $500,000 per bank (assuming joint accounts). As above, if you’re keeping more than $500,000 cash, spread the money across banks to make sure you’re fully insured.

Cash that you don’t need within 3 years (long-term needs)

For cash that you don’t need in the next three years, you’ll definitely want to have a conversation with your financial advisor. Depending on your risk tolerance, goals, etc. it’s likely that investing anything “extra” makes good sense. If the cash is for very long-term goals (such as retirement), you could invest and there are a variety of account types that may or may not be available to you (such as a brokerage account or Roth IRA).

There are also options like paying down your mortgage or other debt (I’ve already assumed you don’t have significant consumer debt, such as credit card debt). Using a combination of several strategies mentioned above will help you make the best use of your cash. There are so many factors at play here, it’s impossible for me to give a general recommendation. The good news is, if you have your emergency reserve fully funded and still have extra cash, you have plenty of options!

Incentive Stock Options, AMT and Qualifying Dispositions- Oh My!

If you have incentive stock options (ISOs) from your employer, you’ve likely considered when to exercise your options, and whether that will trigger the dreaded AMT. 

What are Incentive stock options (ISOs)?

Incentive stock options or ISOs are a type of stock option. A stock option is essentially the right to buy your company’s stock at a set price. They are commonly granted to employees as a part of their compensation package, especially in the tech industry. 

Here’s an example:

Your company grants you 10,000 ISOs with a strike price of $1.00 per share. The current Fair Market Value (FMV) of the company stock is $9.00. This means you have the option to buy up to 10,000 shares of your company stock at $1.00 per share, which is actually worth $9.00 per share. What a bargain! Why wouldn’t you do that? 

Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) at a public company

If, in fact, your company is publicly traded (i.e. anyone can buy the company stock), then you can turn right around and sell this stock for the $9 fair market value. You will be taxed on what is called the bargain element, which is the difference between the strike price and the fair market value. Note: the bargain element is a preference item under the AMT calculation. More on that below.

Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) at a private company

However, if you work for a private company (your company stock is not traded on a public market, like the New York Stock Exchange, it’s more complicated. You can buy those options, but more than likely you will not be able to sell them. So why would you do this? If you expect the value of the stock to increase and especially if the company might go public in the future, you are taking advantage of potentially lower tax rates on the growth of that stock.

That said, this is a highly risky proposition with regards to private company stock. If the company does NOT go public, you may have paid money to exercise stock which is ultimately worthless. 

What about taxes? And what is this dreaded AMT?

The trickiest part of working with ISOs is the tax implications. In particular, when you exercise ISOs, that triggers something called AMT or alternative minimum tax. AMT has been known to cause absolute panic in otherwise level-headed people. It’s not really all that scary, but many have been instructed to avoid “triggering” AMT at all costs. 

As referenced above, when you exercise ISOs, there is no tax due under the normal tax structure, but you will be taxed on the bargain element under the AMT structure. This only impacts you if you exercise ISOs in one tax year but do not sell them in that year. If you exercise and sell in the same calendar year, there is NO AMT. Instead you will pay ordinary income tax on the bargain element. Clear as mud, right? The scenario where you exercise and sell in the same calendar year is considered a disqualifying disposition. It’s not the most advantageous from a tax perspective, but it’s very straightforward.

What is a qualifying disposition?

A qualifying disposition occurs when you sell your stock at least 2 years after it was granted and at least 1 year after it was exercised. If these two criteria have been met, then you will be taxed on any gain at the long term capital gains rate (typically 15% or 20%, depending on your income). You still owe AMT on the bargain element in this case, in the year of exercise.

Many people have strong feelings about holding stock options long enough to have a qualifying disposition. While this is definitely better from a tax perspective, it may not be the best choice for you. By holding your company stock for a full year, you are opening yourself up to potential volatility.

How do you decide what to do?

In addition to tax considerations, as mentioned above, if your company is private, you must decide how much of your money (if any) you are willing to risk by exercising. How much can you afford to lose? This is a complex question and must be considered in conjunction with your larger financial picture in mind.

Additional considerations include:

  • Where will you get the money used to exercise options?
  • How will you pay the AMT tax bill when you file your taxes?
  • What is the general outlook of the company? Are you confident in its long-term prospects?
  • There are additional concepts around leverage and dilution that may be relevant.
    • Leverage refers to the difference between an option with a strike price of $1 (and FMV of $9) as compared to an option with a strike price of $8.50 (and FMV of $9). Which one would you rather have
    • And the percentage of ownership that your shares represent can have an impact, especially as those shares are likely to be diluted if the company issues more shares to other parties.
  • Read your company’s stock plan agreement to look for things like “repurchase rights” and “early exercise” options. You’ll want to know as much as you can about both your rights and the company’s. 

The final word: ISOs ARE complicated and there are a lot of things to bear in mind. It is unfortunately easy to “make a mistake” and end up with a surprise tax bill. Consider working with a financial professional and/or a tax advisor to thoroughly understand the implications of any transaction. And do as much research as you possibly can to understand the restrictions in place from your company. Check out our Instagram Live for more conversation about ISOs.