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the ins and outs of espp's, part 1

Employee Stock Purchase Plans are, like much in the stock-related world, a double-edged sword. Depending on how you swing them, they can either be a handy supplement to your paycheck or just another source of complexity and, in the worst case, a way to flush income down the drain. As many of my fellow geeks have access to them — though not as many as a decade ago — I’d like to take some time to talk about them. Even if you’re already familiar with ESPP’s, it’s a good idea to know what’s out there — not every company’s plan works the same as yours, and it’s handy to know what the possibilities are when you’re job-hunting!

The idea behind the ESPP is relatively simple: as part of the benefits your employer is showering upon you — like manna from the heavens — you are given the opportunity to buy their stock at a discount. Nothing in the world of employer benefits is ever that simple, of course, so I’ll walk through the caveats.

The money for purchasing this stock is withheld from your paycheck. In this way, ESPP’s are much like 401(k)’s: you allocate a certain amount of your paycheck to be withheld, and that amount never graces your bank accounts. Also, there are heavy restrictions on when you can change that allocation; generally you can jump out if you like, but you can’t jump back in until the beginning of the next ESPP period.

The stock is often (not always) purchased in one chunk, at the end of the ESPP period. In this case, rather than buying stock each time you get a paycheck, it’s all purchased at the end of an ESPP period (generally 3 or 6 months). You can expect to see fun little jumps in your employer’s stock price on that day, as some/many/most employees (depending on the company) turn around and sell their newfound shares (and speculators buy or sell in response to this).

There is a cap on how much you can purchase. The cap can be either a maximum percentage of your paycheck, or a maximum number of shares bought, or both.

The discount varies greatly with the employer. Most common is a range from 5%-15%; alternately, the company may “match” your contributions to the ESPP up to a certain percentage of your income. Also, the discounted price is not always the fair market value on the day the stock is bought; it could be the lower of that price and the price at the beginning of the period, or even the price at the beginning of a window of periods! For example: say your employer’s stock price was $10 when you joined a year ago, $20 at the beginning of the last period, and $30 today, the end of the latest ESPP period. Depending on your employer, the buy price could be 5%/10%/15% of $30, $20, or even $10!

Depending on the company, it may not be a guaranteed win. In most cases, if you sell immediately you’ll lock in your profit and get a nice bonus. However, if you work for a company with a highly-volatile stock price (e.g. a “microcap”), you can lose your discount (and more!) by the time you sell your stock.

The taxes on ESPP’s are…interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I’ll be devoting my entire next post to them!

See you then! In the meantime, tell us about your ESPP — has it done well by you? And does it fall into one of the above descriptions, or is it a variant that wasn’t covered?