Clearly, the Enron trials have not closed the book on corporate fraud.
As it happens, companies are perfectly free to issue options priced below the current market: those are called “in the money” options, and they’re worth something right when they’re issued. But there’s a rule that companies have to follow when they issue “in the money” options: they have to disclose it in their financial statements. Unless executives can time-travel, though, it’s hard to make that case for backdated options.
Subsequently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) took an interest, followed by the securities plaintiffs’ bar and many corporations. The practice of options backdating, apparently widespread from 1996 through 2002, is widely believed to have been short-circuited by the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002.
Although backdating had not yet been recognized as a problem, the provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley requiring that insiders report the acquisition of securities, including options, within two days of receipt greatly hindered the ability of corporations to backdate options.
Under previous regulations, corporations could wait 45 days or, in some cases, over a year to report options, thus providing ample time for backdating.
Other similar practices are being reviewed by government officials as well.