Taxing Stock Options: Efficiency, Fairness and Revenue Implications

  • Jack M. Mintz School of Public Policy, University of Calgary
  • V. Balaji Venkatachalam University of Calgary


The federal Liberals and the NDP are right about this much: There is a more sensible way to tax the stock options that are granted as compensation by corporations than the approach the federal government takes now. But both parties are wrong about how much revenue an appropriate change in current tax policy will add to the treasury. Far from the half-billion dollars or more that both parties claim they will raise in federal tax revenue by changing the taxation of stock options, the appropriate reform will virtually raise no revenue. It could actually result in marginally lower tax revenue. As it stands, stock options are treated differently than salary and other forms of cash compensation when it comes to taxing an employee or director, in that they are subject to only half taxation, similar to capital gains. They are also treated differently than cash compensation for the corporation granting the options, in that they cannot be deducted from corporate income tax. The federal NDP and Liberals have both accepted the growing criticism, which only intensified in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, that the lower tax rate is an unfair tax break for those employees who receive stock options. Both parties have proposed to change that, leaving an exemption for startup companies only, with the NDP proposing full personal taxation for all stock options except for start-up companies and the Liberals proposing it for options-based compensation exceeding $100,000. Treating stock options the same as cash compensation would indeed be more tax efficient, reducing the distortionary effect that can influence company compensation packages to give more weight to stock options and less to cash than they might otherwise. But the only way to ensure that efficiency is by treating both the personal tax side of the benefit, and the corporate tax side of the benefit, in the same way as other employee compensation. That is, applying full taxation to the recipient means also allowing the same deduction to an employer allowed for other forms of compensation. Changing only the personal side merely replaces one type of distortion with another, and discourage employers from granting options, by making it a more expensive form of compensation compared to any other. The NDP predicts that its proposal to impose full personal taxation on stock options will raise annually $500 million leading to a tax revenue collection of $ 2 billion in the next four years. The Liberals also predict that their similar proposal will actually raise more: approximately $560 million annually. But neither proposal acknowledges the necessary symmetrical adjustment for corporations — the tax deductibility of stock-option benefits. If we estimate the federal and provincial revenue effect from the full taxation of stock options using data from recent years reflecting the options granted by the largest 100 public corporations in Canada, projected forward to 2015, we find that the tax revenue gain is actually $1.168 billion. But the tax revenue loss, by allowing corporate tax deductions for stock-option benefits, is $1.318 billion. After one more adjustment for the gain from the personal tax on corporate tax saving on the dividend received by the investor, the net effect for federal and provincial governments is a slight net loss of $12 million. The NDP and the Liberals are onto a good idea in proposing a more efficient way to tax stock options. Regardless of who wins the election, it is the right approach. But it cannot be done fairly, or successfully, without also including a deduction for the employer. And once that is accounted for, as sensible as their proposals may be, neither party should expect any extra spending money to come from implementing this change.

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