Tag Archives: Tax on ESOP

Ten Frequently Asked Questions on Exercising Employee Stock Options in Private Limited Companies

Employee Stock Option or ESOP is a mechanism through which companies provide options to their employees to purchase equity shares and become stakeholders in the companies, at a pre-determined price, and upon “Exercise”. To read more on the basics of ESOPs please see here.

Over the last couple of years, we have advised many companies on setting up and implementing ESOP and in the process, we have received queries from both employers and employees on exercise of ESOPs, right time for exercising, tax incidences, etc. In this post, we have attempted to put them in the form of answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

  1. Why are ESOPs granted?

Stock options could be granted for various reasons, ranging from motivating employees to contribute to Company’s growth, to incentivizing employees, rewarding for optimal performance, and also attracting talent pool. In most cases of early stage ventures, ESOPs are used effectively as a compensation packaging.

  1. Who can companies grant ESOPs to?

All employees of a company (including employees of parent and subsidiary entities) can be granted ESOPs, other than promoters, independent directors and directors (holding more than 10% of the outstanding equity shareholding in a company, either directly or indirectly). Depending on the structure of the ESOP scheme adopted by a company the board of directors of such company or the trustees of an ESOP trust of such company, have the ability to formulate and identify certain category of employees, like senior management, performance based, etc., who shall be eligible to obtain grants of ESOPs in such companies.

A registered ‘start-up’ (as defined under the Start-up India Action Plan) can further issue stock options to promoters and even directors holding more than 10% of the outstanding equity shareholding.[1]

Consultants/ advisors, however, cannot be granted employee stock options, under the current legal framework.

  1. What does “Exercise” mean?

Exercise is an event through which an employee or ESOP holder actually exercises the right to purchase equity shares of the company, at a pre-determined price (“Exercise Price”), upon completion of vesting of granted ESOPs, or any portion thereof, and upon payment of the Exercise Price. The moment ESOPs are Exercised, the concerned employee becomes a shareholder in the company.

  1. What is “Exercise Price”?

Exercise Price, as explained above, means the purchase price payable by an employee for each equity share that he/she is entitled to get, upon Exercise of vested ESOPs. The Exercise Price could be a fixed number or formula driven, and such number/formula is required to be captured in the ESOP scheme.

  1. What is “Exercise Period” and when can an employee Exercise ESOPs?

The time period within which an employee can Exercise vested ESOPs, is known as “Exercise Period”. Typically, the Exercise Period would be captured in a company’s ESOP scheme, or in stock option agreements executed with employees.

The Exercise Period could be any time, once ESOPs are vested. Some of the instances of how an Exercise Period may be structured, are as follows:-

  • It could be an annual/semi-annual window in a given financial year, within which all employees with vested ESOPs may Exercise (vested ESOPs only);
  • It could be linked with termination/resignation, and any time within the notice period an employee may Exercise vested ESOPs;
  • It could also be at a merger, entity buy over, change of control situation in a company (considering the cash outflow of the Exercise Price by employees at the time of Exercise and tax incidence as discussed in Point No. 6 below).

However, it is recommended that only one of the above-mentioned options are chosen in order to avoid operational confusion. The ESOP scheme of many companies also provide that if vested ESOPs are not Exercised within an immediately next Exercise window, especially in case of termination/resignation, the vested ESOPs shall also lapse.

  1. What are the applicable Tax incidences upon an employee Exercising ESOPs?[2]

In the hands of an employee:

  • At Exercise: The difference between Exercise Price and fair market value of the shares of a company, at the time of Exercise, is taxable as ‘perquisite’ [Ref: Section 17 (2) (vi) of the Income Tax Act, 1961] under the head of ‘Salary’. The exact amount of tax payable would depend upon the relevant tax slab under which an individual employee falls.

The employer/ company has to deduct TDS on the perquisite amount.  For instance, if the Exercise Price per ESOP is INR 10/- and the fair market value of each share in a company, at the time of Exercise, is INR 100/-, the difference amount, i.e. INR 90/- (INR 100/- less INR 10/-) shall be taxable as ‘perquisite’ and TDS shall also have to be done.

  • During Transfer: At the time of transfer (sale/purchase) of shares obtained upon Exercise of ESOPs, the difference between transfer price and acquisition cost is taxable as capital gains and depending upon the tenure of holding of such shares, the capital gains on the concerned employee could be long term or short-term.

It may be noted that the holding period for calculation of capital gains starts from the date of Exercise.

In the hands of companies:

Discount given to an employee, if any, on the fair market value, at the time of Exercise, i.e. the difference between the Exercise Price and the fair market value, is a permissible deductible business expenditure [Ref: Section 37(1) of the Income Tax Act, 1971] in the hands of a company.

  1. What is the process of Exercise?

Depending on the terms and provisions contained in the ESOP scheme of a company, the Exercise process could be the function of an employee holding vested ESOPs, giving notice to the company in this regard, within the Exercise Period. The Exercise Price needs to be paid in full to the company prior to any Exercise. Post such payment, the Company either issues fresh equity shares to the employee (in case of a notional pool) or transfers the shares to the employee (in case of a trust driven pool). Relevant statutory filings and compliances have to be done for issuance or transfer of shares by the company, as the case may be.

  1. What if an employee leaves before Exercising the vested ESOPs?

This is closely linked with the Exercise Period, as discussed in Point No. 5 above. As such, upon termination/resignation, vested ESOPs may be Exercised by an employee, during the relevant notice period, or held on for Exercising during a merger, entity buy over, change of control situation in a company. Many a times, the way vested ESOPs could be Exercised, is also made dependent upon whether such termination or resignation is for a good reason or a bad reason.

Unvested ESOPs, however, under all circumstances, get cancelled, upon a resignation/termination.

  1. Can a company grant loan to its employees for Exercising vested ESOPs?

Rule 16 of the Companies (Share Capital and Debenture) Rules, 2014 allows companies to grant loan to its employees for the Exercise of vested ESOPs. However, such loan has to be granted in compliance with applicable provisions of the same.

  1. Can a company put restrictions on ESOPs / shares granted under ESOP schemes?

ESOPs cannot be transferred, pledged, hypothecated, mortgaged or otherwise encumbered in any manner.  Shares granted to an employee post Exercise may be subjected to transfer restrictions, and other shareholding rights and obligations as may be applicable in the charter documents of any particular company.

In case of Exercise, prior to the occurrence of a merger, entity buy over, change of control like situation, promoters may also evaluate having some control over such ESOP shareholding, such that, if required, ESOP shares can also be sold, seamlessly, of course subject to the same terms and conditions (including price) as available to other shareholders in such a situation.

Authors: Ms Ayushi Singh (Associate) and Ms Sohini Mandal (Junior Partner)

[1] Notification by Ministry of Corporate Affairs, dated 19 July 2016 available at:

http://www.dhc.co.in/uploadedfile/1/2/-1/Companies%20(Share%20Capital%20and%20Debentures)%20Third%20Amendment%20Rules%202016.pdf

[2] We are not tax experts and the contents captured hereinabove is a mere statement of the provisions. Separate tax advice shall be taken in this regard.

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Confused about ESOP versus Sweat Equity versus Shares against services?

Founders have this question and here is a comparative:

ESOP AND TAX IMPACT

An Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP) is an option given to the employees to buy the shares of the Company. Until the option is exercised and converts into a share, an option holder does not get any shareholder rights of voting, dividends and the like. An Option is valuable because it gives the right to purchase the shares at typically a pre-determined price, and therefore gives the employee an upside to the current value of the share.  Please read our 5 part blog series, which gives a complete overview here.

Basic glossary:

  •  Grant: Is the act of commitment by the employer through informing the employee of the eligibility for the Options under ESOP.
  •  Vesting: Vesting percentage is the portion of the total options Granted which can be exercised on completion of the Vesting Period.
  •  Exercise: Is the act of paying the Exercise Price to convert the Options into Shares
  •  Exercise Period: Any time after the Vesting Period within which the employee has to Exercise.
  •  Lapse of Options: After a certain period, typically termination, expiry of Exercise Period the Options lapse and cannot be converted to Shares.

An ESOP can be used for multiple purposes – as a talent retention tool, as an incentive, as a remuneration mechanism. Accordingly the parameters of the plan would be tailored, if retention, then probably the vesting period would be kept longer. If incentive, then probably the Exercise Price would be kept low, may be face value of shares, so that the employee enjoys a high upside, if remuneration tool, then the eligibility criteria would possibly be all employees. But typically, it is a combination of all of these factors and hence a good balance is required to be detailed in the Plan. An Option is different from Sweat Equity. Sweat Equity means Shares (not Options) granted “in lieu of” services, technology transfer etc. Also, tax treatment and accounting treatment is different compared to Options.

Tax Impact – ESOP:

Under ESOP, there is double incidence of tax on the employee. That is, first at the time of Exercise and second at the time of sale of shares by the employee.

At Exercise:

The tax incidence is calculated on the difference between the Exercise Price and Fair Market Value (FMV) of the Shares on the date of Exercise which shall be construed as perquisite in the hands of employee as a component of salary and taxed according to his/her taxability as per Income Tax Act’s slab rate.

The FMV of the shares shall be as determined by a merchant banker or a chartered accountant as per the Discounted Free Cash Flow method.

At Sale:

When an employee ‘sells’ the Shares, then he further pays capital gains tax on the sale price (less) FMV calculated at time of Exercise. Depending on when the sale is undertaken by the employee, the capital gains will be either Short term or Long term capital gains.  Sale within a period of 12 months is considered as Short term capital gain tax, and sale after 12month is considered as Long term capital gain tax.

SWEAT EQUITY SHARES

Sweat Equity Shares – Companies Act, 1956

Issue of sweat equity shares is governed by the provisions of S. 79A of the Companies Act. Explanation II to the said Section defines the expression ‘sweat equity shares’ to “mean equity shares issued by the company to employees or directors at a discount or for consideration other than cash for providing the know-how or making available rights in the nature of intellectual property rights or value additions, by whatever name called.” It is, therefore, necessary for the issue of sweat equity shares that the concerned person either provides the know-how, intellectual property or other value additions to the company.

In terms of the said Section, a company may issue sweat equity shares of a class of shares already issued, if the following conditions are satisfied:

(a) such issue is authorized by a special resolution of the company in the general meeting;

(b) such resolution specifies the number of shares, current market price, consideration, if any, and the class or classes of the directors or employees to whom such shares are to be issued;

(c) such issue is after expiry of one year from the date on which the company was entitled to commence business; and

(d) in the case of an unlisted company, such shares are issued in accordance with the guidelines as captured below.

Unlisted Companies (Issue of Sweat Equity Shares) Rules, 2003 (Rules):

The guidelines referred to in S. 79A are the Rules issued by the Central Government, which need to be followed by unlisted companies. Rule 8 prescribes that the issue of sweat equity shares to employees and directors shall be at a fair price calculated by an independent valuer. As per Income Tax Act, valuation shall be determined as per Discounted Free Cash Flow method.

Rule 6 restricts the issue of sweat equity shares in a year to 15% of the total paid-up equity share capital or shares of a value up to Rs.5,00,00,000/- (Rupees five crores only), whichever is higher. If this limit is to be exceeded, the same is required to be done with the prior approval of the Central Government.

Rule 10 provides sweat equity shares issued to employees or directors shall be locked in for a period of three years from the date of allotment.

Taxation Impact:  Sweat Equity shares as per the Income Tax Act, 1961 has 2 aspects. > Salaries. > Capital Gains.

Salaries:  Whenever an employee receives a sweat equity shares, the value of such shares will be taxable as a perquisite under the head Salaries as per section 17 of IT Act.

Capital Gains:  When an person ‘sells’ the Shares, then he further pays capital gains tax on the sale price (less) FMV calculated at time of allotment of shares. As per the period of holding, Short term or Long term capital gains shall be applicable. <12 months – Short term capital gain tax, >12month – Long term capital gain tax.

 ALLOTMENT OF SHARES FOR CONSIDERATION OTHER THAN CASH

When Shares are allotted against services rendered or towards know-how, IP etc., then there would be an invoice for the services against which shares are issued.

Taxation Impact:  TDS as applicable to the services (invoice).

Capital Gains:   When an person ‘sells’ the Shares, then he further pays capital gains tax on the sale price (less) acquisition price calculated at time of allotment of shares.

Process:  Shares allotted at the Board meeting and Forms 2 and 3 filed with ROC along with the relevant agreement for the services.

Disclaimer This is not a legal opinion and should not be considered as one.  Please check with your attorney before taking any actions.