Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance

Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
European Centre for
Alternative Finance

Making employee ownership work
in startups and SMEs

Authors: Erik Stam, Ronald Kleverlaan, Lara Spaans
Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
1|                                                                                           Executive

                                                                                                         The adoption of employee ownership can lead                  improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem by
                                                                                                         to individual, company and economy wide                      starting and investing in other companies via
                                                                                                         benefits. It also provides opportunities for a               “entrepreneurial recycling”, than concentrated
                                                                                                         more equal wealth distribution, higher levels                ownership, with two founders who each gain 10
                                                                                                         of investments and more growth-oriented                      million euros (the same total capital gains).
                                                                                                         entrepreneurship. While employee ownership
                                                                                                         is growing and is promoted in many countries,                The benefits of employee ownership are
                                                                                                         The Netherlands is currently falling behind.                 currently insufficiently reaped in the
                                                                                                         We propose several options to increase the use               Netherlands, due to institutional impediments.
                                                                                                         of employee ownership in the Netherlands,                    The Netherlands could learn from countries such
                                                                                                         including a change in the moment of taxation,                as the United States, Canada and Israel, but also
                                                                                                         a change in taxation levels and standardization              from European countries including the United
                                                                                                         of share valuation.                                          Kingdom, Sweden and Estonia how this can be
                                                                                                         Based on a review of scientific literature and an
                                                                                                         international comparison of employee ownership               Currently, owners of employee stock options
                                                                                                         and employee stock options, this report provides             have to pay taxes when the option is exercised.
                                                                                                         an overview of international best-practices and              This means that they have to pay taxes on wealth
                                                                                                         benefits of employee ownership for employees,                that is not yet in hand, as wealth will only be
                                                                                                         companies and society.                                       acquired once the stock is being sold. This
                                                                                                                                                                      discriminates against employees that have low
                                                                                                         Individual employees will benefit from employee              levels of wealth over employees that have high
                                                                                                         ownership by generating additional wealth when               levels of wealth who can more easily afford to
                                                                                                         the company is performing well, creating a more              exercise options and pay taxes, before they are
                                                                                                         inclusive society because also less wealthy                  able to sell the stock and acquire new financial
                                                                                                         employees can benefit from it. Increasing                    means. Therefore a change in the moment of
                                                                                                         employee ownership is also a broad-based                     taxation is one of our suggestions.
                                                                                                         stimulus for SMEs to attract and retain talent and
                                                                                                         increase employee commitment. International                  The analyses in this report open the discussion
                                                                                                         research shows it also increases innovativeness              regarding the scope of the changes made in
                                                                                                         and firm performance.                                        taxation rate, time, and valuation method, but
                                                                                                                                                                      also the scope of the companies that are able to
                                                                                                         Wide-spread employee ownership of SMEs,                      use these employee ownership plans. Countries
                                                                                                         startups and scale-ups can also improve the                  implementing these changes only for a small
                                                                                                         quality of entrepreneurial ecosystems and                    group of specific startups show less effect than
                                                                                                         increase the prevalence of productive                        wider schemes. This suggests that changes
                                                                                                         entrepreneurship. It is more likely that a widely            should be made available for a large group of
     More information at                                                                      distributed ownership of 100 employee                        companies.
     Or contact us via                                                                        shareholders (each gaining 200 000 euros) will

     Photo credits: | Unsplash

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Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
2|                                                                         Management

                                                                                                     Medewerkersparticipatie kan leiden tot                       Een bredere verdeling van aandelen onder
                                                                                                     individuele, bedrijfs- en economische                        medewerkers binnen MKB bedrijven, startups en
                                                                                                     voordelen. Het biedt ook kansen voor een meer                scale-ups kan ook de kwaliteit van ecosystemen
                                                                                                     gelijkwaardige vermogensverdeling, hogere                    voor ondernemerschap verbeteren en hiermee
                                                                                                     investeringen en meer op groei gericht                       ook de hoeveelheid productief ondernemerschap
                                                                                                     ondernemerschap. Terwijl medewerkers-                        vergroten. Door eigenaarschap van het bedrijf te
                                                                                                     participatie in veel landen vaker wordt gebruikt             verdelen over meer medewerkers groeit de
                                                                                                     en wordt gestimuleerd, loopt Nederland                       grootte van de taart en het wordt de taart onder
                                                                                                     momenteel achter bij deze ontwikkeling. We                   meer mensen verdeeld. Hierdoor zijn meer
                                                                                                     beschrijven in dit rapport verschillende opties              mensen in staat om een bedrijf te starten of weer
                                                                                                     om het gebruik van medewerkersparticipatie                   te investeren in andere bedrijven
                                                                                                     in Nederland te vergroten, waaronder een                     (‘entrepreneurial recycling’). Dit zien we
                                                                                                     verandering in het moment van                                gebeuren in landen als de VS, Israël, Estland en
                                                                                                     belastingheffing, een verandering in hoogte                  Schotland. Het is namelijk waarschijnlijker dat
                                                                                                     van de belastingen en standaardisatie van de                 100 medewerkers met aandelen (die elk 200.000
                                                                                                     waardering van aandelen.                                     euro verdienen indien het bedrijf succesvol
                                                                                                                                                                  wordt) het ecosysteem verbeteren door een
                                                                                                     Dit rapport is gebaseerd op een analyse van                  nieuw bedrijf te starten en te investeren in
                                                                                                     wetenschappelijke literatuur en een                          andere bedrijven, dan geconcentreerd eigendom,
                                                                                                     internationale vergelijking van medewerkers-                 met twee oprichters die elk 10 miljoen euro
                                                                                                     participatie en aandelenopties voor                          ontvangen.
                                                                                                     medewerkers. Dit rapport geeft een overzicht
                                                                                                     van internationale best-practices en voordelen               De voordelen van medewerkersparticipatie
                                                                                                     van medewerkersparticipatie voor                             worden in Nederland momenteel onvoldoende
                                                                                                     medewerkers, bedrijven en de samenleving.                    benut. Nederland zou kunnen leren van landen
                                                                                                                                                                  als de Verenigde Staten, Canada en Israël, maar
                                                                                                     Individuele medewerkers zullen profiteren van                ook van Europese landen als het Verenigd
                                                                                                     medewerkersparticipatie door extra vermogen                  Koninkrijk, Zweden en Estland hoe dit
                                                                                                     op te bouwen wanneer het bedrijf goed presteert,             geïmplementeerd kan worden.
                                                                                                     waardoor een meer inclusieve samenleving
                                                                                                     wordt gecreëerd omdat ook minder vermogende                  Momenteel moeten medewerkers die
                                                                                                     medewerkers hiervan kunnen profiteren. Het                   aandelenopties hebben bijvoorbeeld belasting
                                                                                                     vergroten van het eigenaarschap van                          betalen wanneer de optie wordt uitgeoefend. Dit
                                                                                                     medewerkers is ook een goede manier voor                     betekent dat ze belasting moeten betalen over
                                                                                                     startups, scale-ups en traditionele MKB                      vermogen dat nog niet zeker is, aangezien
                                                                                                     bedrijven om talent aan te trekken en te                     vermogen pas verworven wordt als het aandeel
                                                                                                     behouden en de betrokkenheid van medewerkers                 verkocht wordt. Hierdoor worden werknemers
                                                                                                     te vergroten. Internationaal onderzoek toont ook             met een lager vermogen die geen liquide
                                                                                                     aan dat het de innovatie binnen bedrijven en                 middelen beschikbaar hebben achtergesteld ten
                                                                                                     bedrijfsprestaties verhoogt.                                 opzichte van werknemers met een hoger

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Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
3|                                                                                                Introduction

       vermogen, die gemakkelijker opties kunnen                                                         Employee ownership has gained prominence in                                  Revenue Code in 1984, which excused family and
       uitoefenen en belasting vooraf kunnen betalen.                                                    public and scientific debates on the                                         small business owners from paying capital gains
       Het verschuiven van het moment van                                                                organization of firms and society, in particular                             tax if they sold more than 30 percent of company
       belastingheffing is dan ook een van de                                                            for realizing a more connected and inclusive                                 stock to their employees while investing the
       belangrijke adviezen die we geven.                                                                dynamic capitalism1 and an entrepreneurial                                   revenue of the sale in another US firm6.
                                                                                                         economy2. Employee ownership is increasingly
       Dit rapport dient als bijdrage aan de discussie                                                   seen as a means to connect employees and                                     Employee ownership can take many different
       over mogelijke wijzigingen ten aanzien van                                                        employers more strongly, to enable innovation                                forms and shapes, including employee stock
       het belasten van medewerkersparticipatie, maar                                                    and entrepreneurship. Employee ownership is                                  ownership plans (ESOPs), employee stock
       ook over de vraag welke bedrijven gebruik                                                         not a new phenomenon, and it is not                                          purchasing plans (ESPPs), stock options, stock
       moeten kunnen maken van deze regelingen.                                                          homogenous.                                                                  certificates (depository receipt plans), direct
       Landen die deze veranderingen alleen voor een                                                                                                                                  stock, and cooperatives7. Stock options and stock
       kleine groep specifieke startups                                                                  In the United States employee ownership has                                  certificates are potential forms of employee
       implementeerden, laten bijvoorbeeld beperkt                                                       been common practice for quite a long time:                                  ownership, only to be realized at the moment of
       effect zien. Een bredere aanpak is dus gewenst.                                                   taking off already in the 1920s with employee                                grant or exercise. Stock appreciation rights
                                                                                                         stock purchasing plans (as a capital source for                              (SARs) are a type of employee compensation
                                                                                                         companies) and it has become common practice                                 linked to the company’s stock price during a
                                                                                                         within the private sector since the 1980s3.                                  predetermined period, and are not a form of
                                                                                                         Employee ownership has become very prevalent                                 employee ownership.
                                                                                                         at the end of the 20th century due to the ‘bull
                                                                                                         market’ (an extended period of rising stock                                  In this report on employee ownership, we
                                                                                                         prices) that ended in March 2000 and the 1974                                analyze employee ownership in general, with a
                                                                                                         Employee Retirement and Security Act (ERISA)                                 focus on the recent phenomenon of employee
                                                                                                         that accommodated tax-deductible grants of                                   stock options (especially in young and small
                                                                                                         company stock to the employees’ portfolios. The                              firms). We define employee ownership (EO) as
                                                                                                         latter especially promoted Employee Stock                                    “any arrangement in which a company’s
                                                                                                         Ownership Plans (ESOPs).                                                     employees own shares of the company’s stock”,8
                                                                                                                                                                                      and employee stock options (ESO) as “a company
                                                                                                         In Europe employee ownership emerged on a                                    grant that consists of employee options to buy a
                                                                                                         large scale in the 1990s4. Interestingly, while in                           stated number of shares at a defined grant price.
                                                                                                         the EU the biggest adopters of employee                                      The options vest over a period of time or once
                                                                                                         ownership are large firms, in the US, small or                               certain individual, group, or corporate goals are
                                                                                                         medium privately owned firms also make up a                                  met”.9 Ownership is not without risks. Both
                                                                                                         dominant group5. This can be explained by the                                employee ownership and employee stock options
                                                                                                         addition of Section 1024 to the US Internal                                  can be considered as taking a risk: buying stock

                                                                                                         1. Brown et al., 2019; Spicer, 2020
                                                                                                         2. Thurik et al., 2013
                                                                                                         3. Blasi & Kruse, 1999; Blasi et al., 2003; Buchele et al., 2009
                                                                                                         4. Kruse & Blasi, 1995; Duffhues et al., 1999
                                                                                                         5. Blasi et al., 2003
                                                                                                         6. Blasi et al., 2003
                                                                                                         7. Mol et al., 1997
                                                                                                         8. NCEO, 2020
                                                                                                         9. NCEO, 2012

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Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
4|                                                                                                    Academic

       without knowing what its returns will be and                      Employee ownership will have broad-based             We performed a systematic review of the                                   firms than for large firms. This is likely to be
       buying (not being granted) stock options without                  advantages for young, small, old and large firms.    scientific literature on employee ownership, to                           caused by stronger employee co-monitoring and
       knowing whether the employees will be in or out                                                                        establish an scientific evidence base on the                              a stronger corporate culture effect. 12
       of the money when the options vest.                               Employee ownership can also be a means to            antecedents and consequences of employee                                  Furthermore, employees that participate in an
                                                                         improve entrepreneurial ecosystems, providing        ownership, zooming in on employee stock                                   employee ownership scheme might feel a sense
       Next to a source of equity, employee ownership                    alternative sources of entrepreneurial finance,      options.11 The majority of the studies focuses                            of psychological ownership which in turn has a
       and employee stock options are also a means to                    improving access to and commitment of talent,        on the firm level consequences of employee                                positive effect on jobsatisfaction and employee
       attract and retain employees, to increase the                     and ultimately stimulating a culture of              ownership and shows positive effects on                                   commitment.13
       commitment of employees, resulting in higher                      innovation.                                          employee commitment (attracting and binding
       levels of innovation and productivity, and thus                                                                        employees), corporate innovation, and firm                                We also reviewed studies on the antecedents of
       firm performance. This has gained importance in                   In this report we will provide a summary of the      performance (measured with productivity,                                  employee ownership and employee stock
       knowledge-based economies, in which human                         scientific literature on (different types of)        profitability, return on assets, and firm                                 options. Employee stock options are relatively
       capital is the key asset of firms. This is important              employee ownership, and provide in-depth             survival), through greater work effort of                                 often used in technology intensive, and venture
       when considering that many economies still                        insights into the role of the (institutional)        employees and a more cooperative and                                      capital-backed start-ups that need to attract and
       have labor regulations that were a good fit for the               context in enabling or constraining the              entrepreneurial corporate culture (see Table 1).                          retain employees with technical skills, and in
       20st century industrial and managerial economy,                   prevalence of employee ownership (and                                                                                          particular in less hierarchical firms.14
       but need to be redesigned for the 21st century                    employee stock options) and the implications for     For employee stock options, the effects on
       knowledge based and entrepreneurial economy.10                    public policy in the Netherlands.                    corporate innovation and performance are                                  Macro level research shows that employee stock
                                                                                                                              mixed. Employee stock options are a less                                  options are relatively prevalent in countries with
                                                                                                                              committed form of potential ownership, and                                a low effective tax rate on employee stock
                                                                                                                              thus do not yet produce all the positive effects of                       options. Low effective tax rates on employee
                                                                                                                              full-fledged employee ownership. The positive                             stock options also stimulate venture capital
                                                                                                                              effects of employee ownership and employee                                activity, and growth-oriented entrepreneurship
                                                                                                                              stock options are generally stronger for smaller                          at the macro level.15

                                                                                                                              Table 1.
                                                                                                                              Microeconomic consequences of employee ownership: academic evidence base

                                                                                                                                                                       Employee                       Corporate                       Firm
                                                                                                                                                                       commitment                     innovation                      performance

                                                                                                                                  Employee                             +                              +                               +/0

                                                                                                                                  Employees Stock                      +                              0/+                             0/+/-

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                source: Spaans et al. 2021

       10. Commissie Regulering van Werk, 20202. Thurik et al., 2013                                                          11. See O’Boyle et al., 2016; Spaans et al., 2021
                                                                                                                              12. Hochberg & Lindsey, 2010; Kim & Ouimet, 2014
                                                                                                                              13. Pierce et al., 1991; Chiu et al., 2007
                                                                                                                              14. Hand, 2008
                                                                                                                              15. Henrekson & Sanandaji 2018a; 2018b

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Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs - European Centre for Alternative Finance
5|                                                Employee ownership and
                                                                                                                                                                                                employee stock options
                                                                                                                                                                                                    in the Netherlands

       Wide-spread ownership of startups and scale-                                     ownership of 100 employee shareholders (each              The prevalence of employee ownership and                                progressive income tax of 49.5 percent has to be
       ups can improve the quality of entrepreneurial                                   gaining 200 000 euros for example) will improve           employee stock options is relatively low in the                         paid over the difference between the value of the
       ecosystems 16 in several ways (see Figure 1). First,                             the entrepreneurial ecosystem, than                       Netherlands. The fifth European Working                                 stocks and the exercise price. Although
       wide-spread ownership means that a large group                                   concentrated ownership, with for example two              Conditions Survey conducted by Eurofound in                             employees at public firms can simultaneously
       of employees may see their wealth increase after                                 founders who each gain 10 million euros (the              2012, finds that approximately 3 percent of                             exercise their options and sell their stocks at the
       a sale or IPO of the firm, and with this wealth                                  same total capital gains). This will lower the            employees participate in employee ownership.                            stock market in order to receive the liquidity to
       they can become investors in other startups.                                     liquidity constraints to entrepreneurship for a           Kaarsemaker and Poutsma (2016) find that in                             pay the income tax, for private firms (most
       Second, the returns from employee stock options                                  larger group and can stimulate alternative                the Netherlands, in 2009 3.6 percent of                                 startups, scale-ups and SMEs) this is not
       can be used to invest in their own startups,                                     sources of finance in a broader way.                      companies with ten or more employees have                               possible. For employees at private firms, it
       removing so-called liquidity constraints for                                                                                               implemented a broad-based employee                                      makes most sense to buy stocks or exercise their
       entrepreneurship.17 Employee ownership may                                       Enhancing employee ownership and employee                 ownership scheme. Another 1 percent had a                               stock options when the firm they work at is
       enhance “entrepreneurial recycling”: the                                         stock options can improve entrepreneurial                 stock option scheme in place.                                           planning for an ‘exit’ strategy with an IPO or by
       recycling of the wealth created by successful                                    ecosystems by increasing the amount of                                                                                            selling (a part of) the company. Those who leave
       entrepreneurs along with their associated                                        committed talent, a culture of innovation, and            Using more recent data, the European Company                            privately-owned firms before this ‘exit’ or
       learning.18 Evidence of this “entrepreneurial                                    with successful exits of startups it can trigger a        Survey23 shows that 6.7% of private companies                           before a buyback takes place will generally not
       recycling” can be found in US19, and Israel20,                                   process of “entrepreneurial recycling” that               participate in employee share ownership                                 benefit from their stock options as exercising
       Estonia21, and Scotland22. A key improvement of                                  improves the quality of entrepreneurial                   schemes. The prevalence of employee ownership                           them without the possibility of selling the shares
       this mechanism lays in the wider spread of the                                   ecosystems, which subsequently increases the              in the Netherlands is relatively low in                                 will result in having to pay income taxes before
       returns amongst employees of successful startup                                  prevalence of productive entrepreneurship in an           comparison to other European countries and                              realizing any proceeds from the shares. This
       exit: it is more likely that a widely distributed                                economy (see Figure 1).                                   even lower in comparison to the US. In Europe 4                         might discourage employees from taking part in
                                                                                                                                                  to 20 percent of the total workforce is involved                        stock options plans again, and thus refrain
                                                                                                                                                  in employee ownership via stocks or stock                               companies from successfully implementing
                                                                                                                                                  options.24 The prevalence of employee ownership                         stock option schemes in the future. Another
                                                                                                                                                  in Europe and especially the Netherlands is very                        caveat with Dutch stock option regulation is that
                                                                                                                                                  low compared to the 23 percent of the total US                          private firms do not have a standardized way to
                                                                                                                                                  workforce.25 In the US, 36 percent of the                               value their shares and stock options. This could
                                                                                                                                                  employees working at firms with stock, own                              thus mean that the Dutch tax authorities adjust
                                                                                                                                                  shares or stock options in their companies.                             the set value later on, which results in
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          uncertainty about the level of taxation.
                                             Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Elements                                                                   Employees in the Netherlands can either receive
                                                                                                                                                  stock or options as part of a grant or be allowed                       The current institutional conditions in the
                                                                                                                                  Support         to buy them. Stock options are taxed as regular                         Netherlands do not seem to stimulate employee
               Networks               leadership              Finance                  Talent            Knowledge
                                                                                                                                                  income from employment at the moment the                                ownership and thus limits the ensuing benefits
                                                                                                                                                  stock option is exercised. In addition,                                 for employees, firms and society.
                     Formal                                                               physical
                                                        Culture                                                             demand
                   institutions                                                         infrastucture

       Figure 1. Entrepreneurial ecosystem effects of changing institutions
       to enhance employee ownership

        16. An entrepreneurial ecosystem comprises   17. Evans & Jovanovic 1989                          22. Mason & Harrison, 2006                23. Lowitzsch & Hashi, 2014
        a set of interdependent actors and factors   18. Bahrami & Evans, 1995; Mason & Harrison, 2006                                             24. Index Ventures, 2020; NCEO, 2020
        that are governed in such a way that they    19. Bahrami & Evans, 1995                                                                     25. Blasi et al., 2003
        enable productive entrepreneurship           20. Engel & Del-Palacio, 2011
        (Stam, 2015).                                21. Dumas, 2014; Prohorov, 2020

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6|                                                      The Dutch institutional
                                                                                                                                                              context for employee

                                                                                                          How can employee ownership be enhanced?                                       case the employee owns 5% or more of the
                                                                                                          What are the bottlenecks to increasing the                                    shares or a class of shares in the company are
                                                                                                          prevalence of employee ownership and its                                      taxed according to Box 2 (substantial interest
                                                                                                          positive effects in the Netherlands? We present                               taxation 29.6%).26
                                                                                                          a comparative institutional study of employee
                                                                                                          ownership, with a focus on employee stock                                     The low prevalence of employee ownership in
                                                                                                          options. This includes (see Figure 2):                                        the Netherland seems to be caused by several
                                                                                                          • the fluidity of the market for stocks                                       factors27: (1) employees have to pay taxes at the
                                                                                                          • the timing of taxation (at the moment of                                    moment of exercise, without being able to
                                                                                                             grant, vesting, exercise, or sale)                                         simultaneously sell the stocks; (2) there is a
                                                                                                          • the level of taxation                                                       relatively high tax rate on employee stock
                                                                                                          • the way employee stock options and stocks 		                                options; (3) there is uncertainty about the value
                                                                                                             are valued                                                                 of employee stock options in regard to tax
                                                                                                          • the type of taxation (capital tax, labour 		                                filings. In addition, these factors add to the low
                                                                                                             income tax, or corporate tax)                                              awareness of the possibility of introducing and

                                                                                                          Figure 2. Institutional conditions
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Fluidity of the
                                                                                                          enhancing employee ownership                                                                           market for stocks

                                                                                                                Employee                                      grant                   vesting         Exercise          Sale

                                                                                                                                                                                              capital or
                                                                                                                                                                                            labor income;

                                                                                                          In the Netherlands, employee stock options are                                adopting employee ownership in the
                                                                                                          taxed at the moment the options are exercised or                              Netherlands. The level of taxation and the
                                                                                                          the options are sold. The option benefit is taxed                             fluidity of the stock market for private
                                                                                                          as regular employment income (Box 1 at                                        companies is not yet seen as a primary problem
                                                                                                          progressive rates up until 49.5%) After the                                   in the Netherlands, but this could change once
                                                                                                          employee options are exercised, the shares are                                other bottlenecks have been solved and
                                                                                                          either taxed according to Box 3 (taxable income                               employee ownership and stock option plans
                                                                                                          on savings and investments) of which an amount                                become more prevalent.
                                                                                                          of €50,000 of total capital is non-taxable or in

                                                                                                          26. Belastingdienst, 2021         27. This observation is based on discussions
                                                                                                                                            with experts and the international
                                                                                                                                            comparison of the Dutch institutional context
                                                                                                                                            for employee ownership and employee stock

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Timing of taxation                                                gains tax on Incentive Stock Options and the UK
                                                                         enables employees of firms that utilize the
                                                                                                                              7|                                                                                         International
       Currently, owners of employee stock options
       have to pay taxes when the option is exercised.
                                                                         Enterprise Management Incentive (EMI) scheme
                                                                         to pay low capital gains taxes. In France, a lower
       This means that they have to pay taxes on wealth
       that is not yet in hand, as wealth will only be
                                                                         taxation rate needs to be paid if the employee
                                                                         worked at its company for at least three years. In                                                                                               benchmarks
       acquired once the stock is being sold. This is an                 the Netherlands capital gains tax is 26.25
       unfair and a socially unwanted characteristic of                  percent. This is lower than the income tax rate
       the Dutch institutional context. It is unfair,                    Belastingdienst, 2021.
       because it discriminates against employees that
       have low levels of wealth over employees that                     Valuation of employee stock options
       have high levels of wealth who can more easily                    and shares
       afford to exercise options and pay taxes, before                                                                        We analyze the institutional contexts of a set of                          value of shares taxed as a fringe benefit.
       they are able to sell the stock and acquire new                   Unlike public firms listed on the stock exchange,     relevant benchmark countries to tackle the                                 However, employers can set a heavily discounted
       financial means. It is socially unwanted, because                 private firms do not have a standardized way to       bottlenecks for employee ownership in the                                  strike price, allowing employees to pay small
       it is likely to lower the prevalence of employee                  value their stock options and shares. This could      Netherlands. The international comparison of                               amounts of tax.
       stock options and employee ownership, thus                        thus mean that the Dutch tax authorities adjust       institutional contexts for employee stock
       withholding the positive effects on the                           the set value later on, which results in              options is summarized in Table 2. Table 2                                  Israel initially had a similar tax system as the
       performance of firms and the quality of the                       uncertainty about the value of stock (options)        provides a per country summary of the                                      Netherlands. In order to stimulate
       entrepreneurial ecosystem. Countries such as the                  and resulting amount of taxation. This                employee stock option program, the tax rate,                               entrepreneurship, Israel allows employees to get
       US, UK, and Estonia, that are known for their                     uncertainty is likely to lower the use of employee    the tax timing, the assured stock valuation, and                           taxed when they sell their stocks. There are,
       favorable stock option regulations, all allow for                 stock options. The United States IRS’ section         the restrictions regarding the employee stock                              however, no size or stage requirements to
       taxation at the point of sale (see Table 2).                      409A states that private firms need to obtain a       option programs. We have also added the                                    employee stock option plans. If employees take
                                                                         ‘Safe Harbor’ valuation in which the IRS has to       country ranking of Index Ventures, which                                   part in a government trustee agreement, income
       Level of taxation                                                 accept the valuation unless it can prove it to be     qualifies the employee ownership climate (see                              tax will be imposed on the difference between
                                                                         unreasonable. Safe Harbor methods include:            Appendix A1 for the Index Ventures Country                                 the market value when receiving the stock and
       Having to pay relatively high taxes on stocks is                  valuation by an accredited third-party                review).                                                                   the exercise price. This amount is zero for stock
       not necessarily unfair. The degree to which it is                 accountant, reasonably good faith written                                                                                        options. Other profits (spread of the selling and
       socially unwanted depends on the trade-off                        valuation of a startup (with a Backsolve or                                                                                      strike price) will be taxed with a 25 percent
       between the amount of taxes being collected and                   Cost-to-create method), and a formula-based           Country review                                                             capital gains tax. Valuation wise, companies that
       the deferred extra positive effects of employee                   valuation.31                                                                                                                     have US presence are allowed to use US 409A
       ownership (including stock options). The                                                                                Estonia has been hailed as the most favorable                              valuations.35
       taxation of option value gain is currently                        The three factors described above are likely to       context for employee stock options. In 2011
       relatively high in the Netherlands: income tax up                 withhold employees and employers to make use          Estonian legislation towards involvement of                                The United States is often seen as the prime
       to 49.5 percent.28 This might partly explain the                  of employee stock option schemes and constrain        employees as owners was changed, such that                                 example of a context favorable to employee
       low prevalence of employee stock options, and                     the positive effects of employee ownership            employers became exempt from fringe benefit                                ownership and employee stock options. The
       low levels of venture capital and growth-                         (including employee stock options) on employee        tax that had to be paid over employee stock                                most popular employee ownership plan in the US
       oriented entrepreneurship in the Netherlands.29                   commitment (attracting and binding                    options at the moment of exercise. Fringe tax                              is the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
       Since 2018, for startup employees, 25 percent of                  employees), corporate innovation, and firm            normally had to be paid by the stock option                                These plans are part of a firm’s pension plan in
       their gain from the stock option exercising is                    performance (productivity, profitability, return      granting employer over the spread of the market                            which the stocks of employees are bought back
       considered non-taxable (up to €50 000).                           on assets, and firm survival). In addition, such a    value and the exercise price.33 The only condition                         after the employee leaves the company. The
       However, the employer must be granted a R&D                       low participation in employee ownership can also      being that the option is not realized earlier than                         recipients of stocks via ESOPs pay federal capital
       declaration.30 This lifts some of the burden for                  keep the quality of the entrepreneurial               three years since the issue.32 Furthermore, for                            gain taxes of 10 percent.36 With traditional
       employees working at startups, but the                            ecosystem at socially suboptimal levels. How can      employees, Estonia imposes a flat income tax                               ESOPs, employees receive stock on top of their
       regulation does not take away the problems                        these factors be tackled in order to lower the        rate of 20 percent on the spread of the sale price                         wages, while with a 401k plan, employees need
       regarding stock option valuation and taxation                     constraints for employee ownership? We analyze        and the exercise price at the point of sale.34                             to invest their own savings in their company’s
       timing. Looking at some international best                        the institutional contexts of a set of relevant       In case the employer pays fringe benefit tax, the                          stock.37 In addition, the US has two types of stock
       practices (see Table 2), the US imposes capital                   benchmark countries in the next section.              employee pays tax on the spread of the sale price                          options: non-qualified stock options and
                                                                                                                               and the acquisition price which includes the                               incentive stock options. Tax-wise, incentive

        28. Belastingdienst, 2021                                                                                                  32. Cobalt, 2018
        29. Henrekson & Sanandaji 2018a; 2018b                                                                                     33. Jaakson & Kallaste, 2016
        30. Deloitte, 2017; StartupDelta, 2017                                                                                     34. Index Ventures, 2020; Cobalt, 2018
        31. Barnes-Brown, 2014; Redwood valuation, 2016; Lemke, 2020                                                               35. Klementz, 2018; Index Ventures, 2020
                                                                                                                                   36. NCEO, 2020
                                                                                                                                   37. Blasi & Kruse, 2006

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                                                                                                     stock options are the most attractive. Regarding                          have a favorable institutional context for
                                                                                                     incentive stock options (ISO), the US lets                                employee stock options (including Estonia,
                                                                                                     employees pay federal capital gain taxes (0 to 20                         France, UK, Sweden and Portugal) all impose
                                                                                                     percent if outside of the ESOPs and depending on                          their taxes similar to the US at the sale of the
                                                                                                     total income) and state capital gains tax (0 to 13.3                      stock. In France, Bons de Souscription de Parts
                                                                                                     percent depending on state) at the moment the                             de Createur d’Entreprise (BSPCE) are not a pure
                                                                                                     stocks are sold at least 1 year after exercise and 2                      stock option but are instead similar to a
                                                                                                     years after grant.38 There is an exception to the                         Restricted Stock Unit (RSU) which are vested
                                                                                                     rule according to Section 83(i) which allows                              automatically in a later stage of the firm. RSUs do
                                                                                                     non-senior employees to exercise and defer tax                            not have an exercise price and employees have
                                                                                                     up to 5 years, or until the shares become                                 no say when they are vested (and also less say
                                                                                                     tradeable.39 Furthermore, Alternative Minimum                             when they need to pay taxes).42 In 2020, the
                                                                                                     Tax needs to be paid at the moment of exercise if                         French budget law announced that employees
                                                                                                     the value of stock options exceeds $73 600 and                            can purchase shares under the BSPCE program
                                                                                                     the shares are not sold in the same year the                              for a lower price than the valuation per share
                                                                                                     options are exercised.40 Qualified Small Business                         determined at the last funding round.43
                                                                                                     Stocks (QSBS) provide the most tax-friendly
                                                                                                     form of employee ownership (the shares can also                           Countries such as Germany and Austria that
                                                                                                     be issued via options): employees do not have to                          currently have a similar stock option tax system
                                                                                                     pay any federal capital gains tax or need an                              as the Netherlands are regarded to be more
                                                                                                     Alternative Minimum Tax adjustment on their                               inefficient. However, in 2020 Germany has
                                                                                                     company stock. To utilize this scheme,                                    announced to realize a bill that changes this: for
                                                                                                     companies cannot have more than $50 million of                            startups the moment of stock option taxation
                                                                                                     active assets, and employees need to hold on to                           will be moved to the moment of selling the
                                                                                                     the stock for 5 years. 41 Regarding valuation, the                        stock, with the ability to postpone it up to 10
                                                                                                     United States IRS’ section 409A states that                               years. If the employee changes employer
                                                                                                     private firms may either use the General Rule or                          prematurely, the employee needs to pay taxes
                                                                                                     one of the three Safe Harbor methods. Using an                            immediately. The main aim of this bill is to sort
                                                                                                     accredited third-party accountant to perform the                          and retain employees to the company, to
                                                                                                     valuation lowers the probability that the Treasury                        facilitate employees with wealth growth, and let
                                                                                                     performs a revaluation later on.                                          positive firm performance benefit employees.
                                                                                                                                                                               With their new stock option regulation,
                                                                                                     The UK has an Enterprise Management Incentive                             Germany’s employee ownership environment
                                                                                                     Scheme (EMI) for all startups with less than 250                          will improve over that of the Netherlands.
                                                                                                     employees and £30m assets. The stocks are                                 Additionally, regarding employee share
                                                                                                     taxed at the moment of sale against a reduced                             ownership, Germany is planning to raise its
                                                                                                     rate of 10 percent after 2 years (entrepreneurs’                          yearly tax-free stock amount from €360 to
                                                                                                     relief). European countries that are considered to                        €720.44

                                                                                                     38. Index Ventures, 2020              42. Index Ventures, 2020
                                                                                                     39. Index Ventures, 2020              43. Fouquet, 2020
                                                                                                     40. Index Ventures, 2020              44. Bundesministerium der Finanzen, 2020
                                                                                                     41. Bardwell & Huish, 2020

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Table 2

 Country          Employee        Tax rate                 Tax              Assured stock              Restrictions               Ranking    Country         Employee        Tax rate                  Tax                      Assured stock             Restrictions                Ranking
                  stock option                             timing           valuation                                             Index                      stock option                              timing                   valuation                                             Index
                  program                                                                                                         Ventures                   program                                                                                                                  Ventures

 Estonia          Stock options   Flat income tax rate     Point of sale    No, but companies          None                       2          United States   Incentive       Capital gain tax of       Point of sale, if sold   Yes, 409A valuations      * Maximum of                9
                                  of 20% on the spread                      can choose a strike                                                              stock options   0-20% when holding        1 year after exercise    every 12 months             $100,000 combined
                                  between the strike                        price that is heavily                                                            (ISO)           the options for at        and 2 years after        provide assurance.          fair market value of
                                  price and the sale                        discounted without                                                                               least 2 years after the   grant. But               Valuations are              stock that become
                                  price.                                    creating a tax liability                                                                         grant.                    non-senior               determined by a third       exercisable in a year.
                                                                            upon grant                                                                                                                 employees are            party and based on        * Maximum of 10 years
                                                                                                                                                                                                       allowed by Section       multiple valuation          to exercise after issue
 Israel           Stock options   Capital gains tax of     Point of sale    No, but valuations         * Limited to 10% of        4                                                                    83(i) to exercise and    mechanisms: e.g.          * Maximum of 3
                                  25% on the spread                         based on the US 409A         issued shares.                                                                                defer tax up to 5        Black Scholes,              months to exercise
                                  between strike price                      are accepted (often        * Options are to be held                                                                        years or until shares    Multiples, and DCF          after employment
                                  and sale price                            60% below last round         in an approved trust                                                                          become tradable.                                     termination.
                                                                            valuation)                   scheme for 2 years                                                                            Also, at point of
                                                                                                         after grant.                                                                                  exercise when
                                                                                                                                                                                                       needing to pay
 Canada           Stock options   Income tax at 50% of     Point of sale    No, but valuations         None                       5                                                                    alternative
                                  employee’s marginal                       based on the US 409A                                                                                                       minimum tax.
                                  income tax rate.                          are accepted (often
                                  Tax is calculated over                    60% below last round                                             Sweden          Tax favored     Gains on sale are         Point of sale            No, the strike price is   * The QESO scheme is        12
                                  fair value at exercise                    valuation)                                                                       scheme:         subject to capital                                 set to the nominal          only allowed for
                                  moment.                                                                                                                    Qualified       gains tax between                                  value of the shares or      smaller startups (up
                                  First C$850k is tax                                                                                                        Employee        25-30%                                             at an 80% discount.         to 50 employees, less
                                  free if sale is more                                                                                                       Stock Options                                                                                  than 10 years old, and
                                  than 2 years after                                                                                                                                                                                                        a balance sheet
                                  exercise                                                                                                                                                                                                                   5%           method.
                                                                                                                                                                             up to €50,000 if
 United Kingdom   EMI             Capital gains tax of     Point of sale    Yes, these valuations      * Less than 250            7                                          certain conditions
                  (enterprise     20% on gains in                           often have a 70%             employees globally                                                  are met.
                  management      excess of an                              discount with regard       * The firm is
                  incentive       employee’s annual                         to the last round            independent (i.e. it                Germany         Stock options   Point of exercise:        Point of exercise        No, valuation from        None, but minority          23
                  scheme)         capital gains                             valuations.                  does not have a parent                                              income tax, social        and sale                 last funding round        shareholders have
                                  allowance (£11,700).                      For pre-profit startups      company)                                                            security                                           used.                     extensive rights to be
                                  Entrepreneurs relief                      valuation can be equal     * Gross assets under                                                  contributions,                                                               consulted on corporate
                                  of reduced tax of                         to the nominal value.        £30m                                                                solidarity surcharge                                                         decisions, which makes
                                  10% when there is at                                                 * Employees work 25+                                                  and church tax.                                                              use of stock options
                                  least 2 years between                                                  hours a week or 75%                                                 Point of sale: 28%                                                           challenging
                                  grant and sale.                                                        of their working time.                                              tax rate
                                                                                                       * Maximum strike price
                                                                                                         value of £250k of
                                                                                                         unexercised options
                                                                                                       * Aggregate limit of
                                                                                                         £3m strike price value
                                                                                                         of EMI options can be

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8|                                                                 Conclusions and

                                                                                                      There is abundant scientific evidence on the                  financial means. The current situation constrains
                                                                                                      microeconomic advantages of employee                          the prevalence of employee stock options and
                                                                                                      ownership and employee stock options,                         also (potential) employee ownership, thus
                                                                                                      ranging from positive effects on employee                     withholding the positive effects on the
                                                                                                      commitment (attracting and binding                            performance of firms and the quality of the
                                                                                                      employees), corporate innovation, and firm                    entrepreneurial ecosystem. The macro effect of
                                                                                                      performance (productivity, profitability, return              high taxes depends on the trade-off between the
                                                                                                      on assets, and firm survival), through greater                amount of taxes being collected and the deferred
                                                                                                      work effort of employees and a more                           extra positive macroeconomic effects of
                                                                                                      cooperative and entrepreneurial corporate                     employee ownership (including stock options). A
                                                                                                      culture. There is some scientific evidence on                 policy change (lower taxation, at moment of
                                                                                                      the macroeconomic advantages of employee                      sale) increases the individual benefits, and has
                                                                                                      ownership and employee stock options,                         probably positive microeconomic effects. It
                                                                                                      including higher levels of venture capital                    might lower national tax benefits initially, but
                                                                                                      investments and rates of growth-oriented                      this might catch up once employee ownership
                                                                                                      entrepreneurship. The benefits seem to be                     becomes more widely diffused. The widespread
                                                                                                      strongest for (potential) scale-ups and SMEs in               diffusion of employee ownership is likely to
                                                                                                      general.                                                      improve the quality of the Dutch entrepreneurial
                                                                                                                                                                    ecosystem, especially talent and finance, via
                                                                                                      The low level of employee ownership and in                    “entrepreneurial recycling”. This will
                                                                                                      particular employee stock options in The                      subsequently lead to higher levels of productive
                                                                                                      Netherlands can partly be explained by (1) the                entrepreneurship.
                                                                                                      early taxation moment, during exercise, not sale,
                                                                                                      (2) the high tax rate on employee stock options,              The analyses in this report open the discussion
                                                                                                      and (3) uncertainty about the value of employee               regarding the scope of the changes made in
                                                                                                      stock options. Currently, owners of employee                  taxation rate, time, and valuation method.
                                                                                                      stock options have to pay taxes when the option               Countries that permit tax regulation exceptions
                                                                                                      is exercised. This means that they have to pay                for startups or scaleups satisfying certain size or
                                                                                                      taxes on wealth that is not yet in hand, as wealth            stage requirements, might work negatively if
                                                                                                      will only be acquired once the stock is being sold.           such companies grow out of these requirements.
                                                                                                      This discriminates against employees that have                Tax advantages in Sweden are reserved for
                                                                                                      lower levels of wealth over employees that have               startups under 50 employees and are limiting the
                                                                                                      higher levels of wealth who can more easily                   further participation of employees. Broad-based
                                                                                                      afford to exercise options and pay taxes, before              measures, therefore, might work best. The UK’s
                                                                                                      they are able to sell the stock and acquire new               EMI scheme has proven to be effective, even

20 | European Centre for Alternative Finance - Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs                           European Centre for Alternative Finance - Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs   |   21
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10|                                                                                  Appendix A1                                                                            Appendix A2
                                                                                   Index Ventures                                                                        List of consulted
                                                                                   Country review                                                                                  experts

        Table A1. Institutional contexts favoring employee stock options                                            Sander Agterhof – EY
                                                                                                                    Marcel ten Brinke – The Share Council
                                                                                                                    Dominic Jacquesson – Index Ventures
                                                                                                                    Gijs Dalen Meurs – Eyevestor
                                                                                                                    Alfred Griffioen – De Coöperatie expert
                                                                                                                    Fons Huijgens – Stichting MKB financiering
                                                                                                                    Frederik Mijnhardt – SecFi
                                                                                                                    Pascale Nieuwland-Jansen – SNPI
                                                                                                                    Marc Oostenbroek - Van Loman
                                                                                                                    Joost Roosen – Captin
                                                                                                                    Wibe Wagemans – serial entrepreneur Silicon Valley
                                                                                                                    Quintus Willemse – The Share Council

                                                                                      source: Index Ventures 2021

        Scores were given according to the seven ranking factors named in the table (plan scope, strike price,
        bureaucracy, tax timing, tax rate and employer taxation). The scores go from 1 to 5, with 1 being the
        worst score and 5 being the best. Based on the total scores, four groups were established, dividing the
        countries over ‘winners’, ‘high ranking’, ‘runners-up’, or ‘ripe for change’.

26 | European Centre for Alternative Finance - Making employee ownership work in startups and SMEs
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