Apple Computer Inc warned that it may have to revise its profits dating back to 2002 in a worsening stock option scandal that has cast a harsh light on Silicon Valley's compensation practices.
Without providing specifics, the Cupertino, California-based maker of Macintosh computer and iPod music players said on Thursday it had uncovered enough evidence of mishandled stock options to raise doubts about the accuracy of financial statements dating back to Sept. 29, 2002.
During this stretch, Apple has enjoyed one of the most prosperous periods in its 30-year history. Fueled largely by steadily rising sales of its ubiquitous iPod, Apple has reported US$3.1 billion in profit during the past four years.
Apple first raised a red flag about the way it accounted for stock options in late June when it announced an internal investigation into a series of "irregularities."
Some of the nettlesome stock options were given to Steve Jobs, Apple's renowned chief executive, but he voluntarily canceled those in 2003 before cashing them in.
After digging deeper, Apple uncovered enough new problems to prompt the company to hire an outside lawyer to take over the investigation and notify the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about its findings.
Apple hopes to complete its accounting review as quickly as possible, said company spokesman Steve Dowling. In the meantime, Apple may miss a deadline for filing its latest quarterly report with the SEC.
The developments, announced several hours after the stock market closed, threaten to rattle investors, based on how Wall Street has punished other companies that have recently disclosed potential accounting problems caused by stock option improprieties.
Apple shares gained US$1.43 on Thursday to close at US$69.59 on the NADAQ Stock Market. The company's market value increased by about $55 billion since September 2002, as its stock price rose by nearly 10-fold.
More than 60 other companies across the US are grappling with similar stock option headaches, but Apple is by far the most prominent of the lot to acknowledge trouble so far.
While Apple has not explained exactly how it mishandled stock options, most of the problems at other companies so far have revolved around "backdating."
Under this practice, insiders try to make the rewards more lucrative by retroactively pinning the option's exercise price to a low point in the stock's value. Usually, a stock option's exercise price coincides with the market value at the time of a grant to give the recipient an incentive to drive the price higher.
If companies backdate options without accounting for the move, it can cause profits to be overstated and taxes to be underpaid.
The financial manipulation also exposes companies to possible fraud charges that could trigger civil fines and even criminal cases.
The US Justice Department has already brought criminal charges against Brocade Communications Systems Inc's former CEO, Gregory Reyes, and is actively investigating other cases. Reyes, who hasn't yet entered a plea in the case, is free on a US$2 million bond.
More than 20 of the companies entangled in the stock option imbroglio are in Silicon Valley, where the incentives first became a staple of compensation packages for rank-and-file employees as well as top executives.
As high-tech stocks soared during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, workers began to clamor for even better stock option packages in pursuit of a big jackpot. That hunger for ever-more lucrative stock options is believed to have driven many Silicon Valley companies to resort to backdating as they tried to recruit and retain workers.