In this review, we're going to suggest that newly employed corporate scientists educate themselves--especially with tax time around the corner--on employee STOCK OPTIONS.
Yes, other than gloating over the fact that you may have options and obsessing over how much they could be worth (not good things), you've probably figured out that employee stock options usually don't come with user manuals.
Some academic readers will ask why we picked this topic. Our response: Talk to your colleagues in industry, where stock options are the primary carrot and stick of choice at many companies.
Regardless of their potential (and we stress "potential") to make former grad students like David Filo and Jerry Yang into billionaires, stock options are an odd animal when it comes to personal finances. Many companies, including start-ups, no longer have comprehensive pension plans and instead provide stock options as incentives for performance and company loyalty. This means many scientists and engineers have found that their perspective on "personal wealth" has changed. You might be wealthy on paper, but you might not be able to (or want to) tap your options to put a downpayment on a house or pay for a safari trip to Nairobi.
We've found a useful and mostly accurate guide in Option Prophet. We have friends who work at large software, pharmaceutical, engineering, and financial companies who have referred to Option Prophet for general information, primarily because their employers' stocks have done well. Obviously, grad school didn't prepare them for this particular aspect of industry employment.
First a word of caution. Different companies will issue stock options to employees with different restrictions and different pricing levels. Do NOT take whatever you learn from Option Prophet or any other advice publication as the literal truth. (If you don't have a tax accountant yet, you'll definitely have one by the time you decide to exercise your options.)
Option Prophet is broken into five sections: Profiles, Strategies, Planner, Definitions & Taxes, and their News Archive. The Profiles section attempts to give users a sense of how stock options can be used to suit different financial situations. All the profiles appear to be fictional and provide limited information. The Strategies section provides an overview of common strategies that options holders have used to maximize their worth, such as "buying puts," "covered calls," and "shorting against the box." The Strategies section also has a brief introduction into exercising your options (cashing out).
The Do-It-Yourself Planner and the Definitions & Taxes sections will give most readers the urge to consult (or at least locate for the first time) tax accountants and financial planners, but it's useful information.
Overall, readers will get a very clear sense that the tax laws surrounding options and the very volatile nature of options aren't going to make future financial planning easier. (Moral: Don't count on options to pay off your credit card bills.)
Most of Option Prophet's information is free, except for their monthly e-mail newsletter, Option Monitor. This would probably appeal most to users who are counting on their options to help support a better lifestyle (or their offspring's college costs). The newsletter is free for the first few issues, so intrepid options holders can't lose here. The Option Prophet's free News Archive section also has a fair collection of recent changes to tax laws and corporate examples of options activity.
Overall, we liked Option Prophet's range of information. Newbies will find the site eye-opening and a useful starting point for making their own forays into the scary world of options. But watch out for horrendous download times--the site tends to be very busy and very slow, especially around lunchtime on both East and West Coasts.