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The tax treatment of employee stock options : generous to a fault

journal contribution
posted on 2001-01-01, 00:00 authored by D Sandler

In the 2000 budgets, both the federal and Ontario governments introduced changes to the tax treatment of employee stock options for the explicit purpose of making their tax treatment in Canada similar to or more favourable than that in the United States. The federal budget added a deferral, similar to that currently applicable to options granted by Canadian-controlled private corporations, for up to $100,000 per year of public company stock options. The Ontario budget introduced an exemption from tax for employees involved in research and development on the first $100,000 per year of employee benefits arising on the exercise of qualified stock options or on eligible capital gains arising from the sale of shares acquired by the exercise of eligible stock options. These proposals reflect the apparent acceptance by the two governments that there is a “brain drain” from Canada to the United States of knowledge workers in the “new” economy and that reductions in Canadian taxes should stem this drain. In the author’s view, the tax treatment of employee stock options, even without these changes, is overly generous. Both the federal and provincial proposals ignore the fact that most employee stock options are taxed more favourably in Canada than in the United States in any event. In particular, most employee stock option benefits in Canada are taxed at capital gains tax rates, whereas in the United States most are taxed at full rates. While the US Internal Revenue Code does provide capital gains tax treatment for certain employee stock option benefits, a number of preconditions must be met. Most important, the shares acquired pursuant to the options must be held for a minimum of one year after the option is exercised. In addition, there are monetary limits on the amount of options that qualify for capital gains treatment. In Canada, there are generally no holding period requirements or monetary limits that apply in order for the option holder to benefit from capital gains tax rates. Empirical evidence indicates that the vast majority of employees in the United States exercise their options and immediately sell the shares acquired. These “cashless exercises” do not benefit from capital gains treatment in the United States, whereas similar cashless exercises in Canada generally do. This empirical evidence suggests not only that the 2000 budget proposals are unwarranted, but also that the existing treatment of employee stock options in Canada is already more generous than that in the United States. This article begins with a theoretical “benchmark” for the taxation of employee stock options. The author suggests that employee stock options should be treated in the same manner as other income from employment. In theory, the value of the benefit should be included in income when the option is granted or vests. However, owing to the practical difficulty of valuing employee stock options, the theoretical benchmark proposed is that the value of the benefit (the difference between the fair market value of the shares acquired and the strike price under the option) be taxed when the shares are acquired, and the employer be entitled to a corresponding deduction. The employee stock option rules in Canada and the United States are then compared and contrasted with each other and the benchmark treatment. The article then examines the arguments that have been made for favourable treatment of employee stock options. Included in this critique is a review of the recent empirical work on the Canadian brain drain. Empirical studies suggest that the brain drain—if it exists at all—is small and that, despite what many newspapers and right-wing think-tanks would have us believe, lower taxes in the United States are not the cause. One study, concluding that taxes do have an effect on migration, suggests that even if Canada adopted a tax system identical to that in the United States, the brain



Canadian tax journal/ Revue fiscale Canadienne






259 - 319


Canadian Tax Foundation


Toronto, Canada





Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal