ESOPs for Privatization and Restructuring
Abstract This paper explains the functions of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and the basic
structure of ESOP transactions. When considering "transplanting" ESOPs to other countries,
special attention should be paid to several ESOP innovations (not shared by some other employee
ownership arrangements): 1) the payments by the company, not the workers, for the shares, 2) the
stability of the employee ownership in the trust, 3) the broad-based nature of the ownership within
the firm, and 4) the transition mechanism (buying back shares from retiring workers and
reallocating them to current workers). In addition, any new ESOP could adopt a "rollover plan"
where the share buy-backs took place after, say, ten years instead of being triggered by
retirements. There is also the consideration of whether the ESOP should be implemented using an
external trust (e.g., in countries without trust legislation) or by an internal ESOP mechanism.
Finally, I consider a number of ways that ESOPs could be used in restructuring transactions such
as debt-equity swaps and spin-offs.
Table of Contents
Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) Structure of ESOP Transactions
External and Internal ESOPs
Using ESOPs in Debt-Equity Restructuring Restructuring with Spin-Offs
From "Bigger is Better" to "Small is Beautiful"
How to Do Spin-Offs?
Financial Structure of Spin-Off Transaction Role of the Government
Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)
In the United States, an ESOP is a special type of benefit plan authorized by the Employee
Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974. As in any employee benefit plan, the
employer contributions to an ESOP trust are deductible from taxable corporate income. But,
unlike an ordinary pension trust, an ESOP can take out a loan to buy shares and can invest most
or all of its assets in the employer’s stock. This makes an ESOP into a new vehicle for worker
ownership but it is not a substitute for a diversified pension plan.
ESOPs have received strong tax preferences so for that reason, if for no other, their growth has
been significant. From the beginning in 1974, 11,000 ESOPs sprung up in the United States
covering over 10 per cent of the workforce (in comparison, a comparable or smaller per cent of
the workforce is unionized). There are perhaps 1000 ESOPs holding a majority of the shares in
* The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author and should
not be attributed in any manner to the World Bank, to its affiliated organizations, or to the members of its Board of
Directors or the countries they represent.
the company. The main tax advantage to the company is the ability to deduct the value of shares
issued to an ESOP from the taxable corporate income.
Structure of ESOP Transactions
In the leveraged ESOP transaction, the corporate employer adopts an employee stock ownership
plan (ESOP) which includes a trust as a separate legal entity formed to hold employer stock. The
ESOP borrows money from a bank or other lender (step 1 in diagram below), and uses that
money to purchase some or all of the employer stock at fair market value (steps 2 and 3). The
loan proceeds thus pass through the trust to the employer, and the stock is held in the trust.
Ordinarily, the company guarantees repayment of the loan by the ESOP and the stock in the trust
is pledged to guarantee the loan.
Over time, the employer makes contributions of cash to the ESOP in amounts needed to repay the
principal and interest of the bank loan (step 4) and the trust passes the payments through to the
bank (step 5). Thus, the employer pays off the loan gradually by repayments to the lender
through the ESOP—payments that are deductible from taxable income as deferred labor
compensation. This deduction of both interest and principal payments represents a significant tax
advantage since the employer ordinarily can deduct only the interest payments. Prior to the loan
payments, the shares in the ESOP are held in a “collective” Suspense Account. As the loan
payments are made, a proportionate amount of the shares are assigned to the individual share
accounts of the then-current employees.
5. Loan1. LoanPayments
2. Stock4. ESOPPurchace3. StockContribution
A Standard Leveraged ESOP
An ESOP can also be used to partially or wholly buy out a company from a private or public
owner. This is called the “leveraged buyout transaction.” The ESOP borrows money (step 1 in diagram below) and the loan payments are guaranteed by the firm with the purchased shares as
collateral. The shares are then purchased from the outside owner, such as the government, with
the loan proceeds (steps 2 and 3)—instead of buying newly issued shares from the company.
Seller of2. StockSharesPurchace
5. Loan1. LoanPayments
Leveraged Worker Buy-Out from Outside Seller (old shares)
Again the firm makes ESOP contributions which are passed through to pay off the loan (steps 4
and 5). A variation on this plan is for the seller to supply all or some of the credit. By combining
the functions of the bank and outside seller in the above diagram, we have the “pure credit”
leveraged buyout transaction.
Sometimes the acronym "ESOP" is used to refer to most any employee ownership arrangement.
But that broad use of the phrase is likely to overlook some important innovations in the ESOP
design. I will focus on four important innovations worthy of being preserved in any "ESOP"
arrangement for other countries and one innovation not used because of the way ESOPs were
legislatively implemented in the USA.
1. Payments for worker shares are company payments coming out of revenues, not directly
out of workers' pockets. Then the worker ownership needs to supplemented by
workplace participation and productivity improvement programs so that the shares will, in
effect, be paid for by the increased productivity. There are nevertheless good
psychological reasons to have each worker make some significant out-of-pocket payments
even though this is not required in the American ESOPs.
2. The ESOP is a stable form of employee ownership. The workers cannot individually sell
their shares at any time (the company usually buys back the shares when the worker leaves
or retires). The ESOP can be overturned by a collective decision (say, a two-thirds vote)
but individual workers cannot be stampeded into selling by 51% tender offers (i.e., offers
to buy only 51% of the shares so the workers who didn't quickly offer their shares would
be left without control and without a market for their shares). With stabilized ownership,
workers will focus on getting more value out of their ownership by making the company
more profitable rather than constantly scanning for sharp share-selling deals.
3. ESOPs have broad-based ownership within the firm. As the ESOP loans are paid off,
the shares are allocated according to payroll to the current employees. Thus ownership is
automatically going to the primary stakeholder group (the people working in the firm) and
it is going to everyone in the group, not just to a small group of managers (e.g., as with
most stock options plans).
4. ESOPs have an available transition mechanism so that as the old workers retire and new
workers come in, the ownership shifts from the older to the younger generation. So many
ad hoc employee ownership arrangements benefit just the original group and have no built-
in transition mechanism. As workers retire or otherwise leave, company contributions to
the ESOP trust are passed through to buy back the retirees shares at their appraised value
over a period of years and the shares repurchased by the trust are reallocated to the
currently employed workers.
In the American ESOP, the share buybacks are timed to retirement or termination because the
legislation was implemented as a part of pension law. However in new ESOP legislation in
other countries, one could imagine an improved arrangement so that risk did not accumulate
for the older workers. For instance, one could have all shares repurchased and reallocated
after they have been in a worker's account for, say, ten years. This ten-year "rollover plan"
would then take the pressure off retiring in order to cash in shares. Everyone, retired or not,
would get a flow of share buyback payments ten years after the shares first went into their
accounts. From the company's viewpoint, the repurchase liability would not be a random
event triggered by retirements but would be known ten years in advance.
External and Internal ESOPs
One major feature of the American ESOP that proves not to be necessary in different legal
environments is the external trust as a vehicle for the ESOP. The ESOP can be moved into the
company itself to form an “internal ESOP”. As is illustrated by professional partnerships or worker cooperatives ("share cooperatives"), an enterprise or organization can be employee owned
without having an external trust or association to “hold the ownership.” The structure of the
internal ESOP can be written into the articles of incorporation and by-laws of the company itself
or it could be based on existing cooperative legislation.
Firm Balance Sheet
ESOP LoanCashExternal ESOPInventoryEquity:AssetsLiabilitiesEquipment Paid-in CapitalPlantESOP Retained EarningsESOP Equity:Sharesminus Loan Balance Account Individual Share Accts
Bringing an ESOP inside a Company
The equity of the firm with an internal ESOP could be partitioned into the usual external equity
and the workers’ portion of the equity structured as the internal ESOP, or in more generic terms,
an internal worker trust.
External Equity:ExternalInventory Ext. Paid-in CapitalPortion} Ext. Retained Earningsof EquityEquipmentWorker Equity:
Individual Share AccountsWorkers'PlantInternal= Suspense AccountPortionESOP}minus Loan Balance Accountof Equity
Balance Sheet of Firm with Internal ESOP
With an internal ESOP, the authorized and issued common voting shares would be divided into
the externally owned shares (i.e., shares owned outside the “ESOP” by individuals or
organizations) and the internal shares held in the worker trust. The basic division of voting rights
and dividend rights between the ESOP and the other owners would follow that division of shares.
The ESOP agreements and trust documents would be replaced by sections in the articles of
incorporation (the "constitution" of the firm) and the corporate by-laws that would spell out the
structure and governance of the internal ESOP. It is important that the external shareholders not
have right to overturn the ESOP arrangements. Thus this internal ESOP can be implemented in
any country that has joint stock company law. If there were no external shares, then the internal
ESOP might be much like a worker cooperative or a worker-owned joint-stock cooperative. If
the ESOP was to have tax benefits, then the tax legislation would have to recognize some
standard form of the external or internal ESOP arrangement for special treatment.
Using ESOPs in Debt-Equity Restructuring
An ESOP-like mechanism can be used for debt-equity swaps between banks and companies. Let
us assume that the original plan for the D/E swap envisaged a separate Special Purpose Vehicle
(SPV) to hold the shares of the company issued in exchange for the non-performing debt of the
company to the bank. The bank assigns the loan to the SPV which swaps it for company shares,
and the bank controls the shares through the SPV.
2. Loan3. StockSwap
Debt-Equity Swap through SPV
There are two problems with this scenario which might be alleviated or resolved by restructuring
the SPV as an ESOP. Firstly, the bank has no automatic “market” for the shares. The debt-
equity swap would probably only be contemplated in the first place when there was no outside
strategic buyer for the shares—so one cannot just "assume" an outside buyer. Secondly, it is
unwise to assume that banks that make bad loans are going to be any better at industrial
restructuring. And even if the bank knew what to do, there is likely to be a very imperfect
principal-agent relationship between the bank and company. As it stands, the management and
workers are supposed to do all that is required to restructure and rebuild the company, only to
have the bank sell the large and perhaps controlling block of shares to some as-yet-undetermined
As a pilot project, some of the SPVs could be restructured on an ad hoc basis (pending new
legislation) as ESOPs to address both of these problems. The SVP/ESOP is inserted into the loan
relationship as if the original loan had been channeled through the ESOP, and new shares would
be issued to the SPV/ESOP. The company and bank agree to a future repayment schedule
through the ESOP where, if possible, the future loan payments through the ESOP should be
treated tax-wise as a deductible expense.
5. Loan1. LoanPayments
2. Stock4. ESOPPurchace3. StockContribution
Debt/Equity Swap SPV Restructured as ESOP
The agreement restructuring the SPV/ESOP would stipulate that the bank would control the
shares in the suspense account so, in the short-run, the control arrangements would be like a debt-
equity swap. As the rescheduled future debt payments are made through the SPV/ESOP, the proportionate amount of the shares would be assigned to the individual share accounts of the then current-employees (e.g., in proportion to their part of current payroll). The employees would exercise the voting rights and enjoy the dividend rights of the shares in their accounts but could not sell the shares until they terminated with the company (as in the US ESOP arrangements). In the absence of a liquid outside market, the company or the ESOP itself would be legally obligated to buy back the shares of departing or retiring employees.
If the debt has simply been rescheduled without the ESOP and without an equity swap, then the managers and workers would be making all the sacrifices and efforts involved in restructuring largely for the benefit of the existing old ownership. If a debt-equity swap was made but was not converted to an ESOP, then the efforts would be for the benefit of the bank. With the conversion to an ESOP, the managers and workers are self-motivated to restructure the company and pay off the ESOP loan in order to get the shares themselves. While the bank still controls the shares until they are paid for in the ESOP arrangement, the bank “finds a market” for the shares.
Restructuring with Spin-Offs
From "Bigger is Better" to "Small is Beautiful"
Why do small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) tend to work well and overcome some of the endemic problems of large firms? When there are many people in a firm, each person might feel they could only have a 1/N effect—which would be such a small effect that they are not strongly
motivated. The firm is just too huge to feel that you can make a difference. In a small or medium-sized firm (say, up to 500 workers), an individual might be able to see the difference that he or she, or the team they work in, might make. That alone should call forth more individual effort. Moreover, people can more easily see what others are doing so that non-cooperative behavior will face more social approbation.
From the viewpoint of decision-making, small firms have less bureaucratic hierarchy and are thus more agile in responding to changing conditions. In America, they are called "gazelles" because they can change direction so quickly. Information has a shorter distance to travel from top to bottom and from bottom to top. And management will tend to be newer and more
entrepreneurial in a small and medium-sized firm. They will be building for the future—rather
than, as in some of the larger firms, just trying to hold together the remnants of the past.
Spin-offs can add new customers and new suppliers. A spun-off parts supplier can find new customers; they are no longer a captive part of a vertically integrated firm. The trucking part of business, once spun off, can find new business. And so forth. With the prospect of new customers, there needs to be innovation and learning to get and to hold the new clients. These are the sorts of market-driven processes of learning and transformation that are fostered by spin-off restructuring.
How to Do Spin-Offs?
One place to start spin-offs is to undo some vertical or horizontal integration. Every factory does not need its own exclusive parts-producing shop, its own trucking fleet and vehicle repair shops, its own food service, its own printing and reproduction shops, and so forth. If there are different
factories producing a product for different regions of the country, there is probably no good reason why they have to be in the same firm. There could even be some competition in adjacent territories. Some factories have found that they have to start producing several new products, but those products could just as well be produced in new spin-offs.
Who does the spin-offs? It is best to start with middle managers and their staff and production personnel. It is important to preserve the organizational capital of well-functioning teams. Once dispersed, it is hard to put a good team together again. There might be other partners local or more distant partners either in the beginning or later. Since it is the middle manager that might become the top manager in a spin-off, the manager would tend to be younger and more disposed to build new value (rather than just grab what one can in the face of a rapidly approaching retirement—as sometimes happens in the case of some older managers).
Following out this scenario, the middle managers and as many as possible of the workers in the spin-off would form a new company. The new company would buy at a negotiated price in a lease-purchase arrangement the necessary assets from the mother firm (e.g., building, machinery, vehicles, and inventory). The mother firm might well owe the workers some past wages and benefits, so those arrears might be written off as partial payment for the assets and would be part of the new shareholders' equity in the spin-off.
Why is it important to have broad ownership of the staff in the spin-off? Doesn't concentrated ownership on the part of the manager create sharper incentives? One of the under-appreciated problems has been the "no exit" problem for concentrated owners. SMEs with concentrated or family ownership often have an exit problem. The firms are usually unsuitable for floatation on a stock market and in any case, the occasion of the retirement of a tried and tested owner-manger is hardly the time to attempt a floatation. Often the only buyer for a firm might be the competition that wants to shut it down.
This problem of ownership transition in America has been addressed by over 11,000 employee stock ownership plans or ESOPs wherein a closely-held company itself buys back the retiring owner's shares over a period of years and redistributes the shares to the current employees. Without some such mechanism of exit in the post-socialist environment, controlling owner-managers will be tempted to slowly liquidate or "tunnel" the firm to get their retirement nest-egg, all to the detriment of the workers, suppliers, customers, and local community. Thus it is a good idea to have a broad enough internal ownership in an insider-owned firm to prevent that sort of "tunneling". With broader ownership, the retirements come in smaller chunks so the firm could use something like the ESOP mechanism to slowly buy out the retiring owners and redistribute the shares.
The mother firm might be a minority shareholder in the spin-off, but it would defeat much of the purpose to make it a controlling shareholder. The remainder of the lease-purchase payments would be made by the spun-off firm over a period of years. Ordinarily the payments might be made to the mother firm, but if the mother firm had bad debts to a local bank or another creditor, then the lease payments might be assigned to the creditor. In that manner, the spin-off would have been part of a restructure of both the assets and the liabilities of the mother firm.
Financial Structure of Spin-Off Transaction
In a typical example, the management and staff destined to work in a proposed spin-off will
incorporate a new company using some amount of cash (possibly with a small loan). Then the
mother firm drops down the necessary assets into the new firm in return for some combination of
common or preferred stock or debt notes issued by the new company (or by assuming some debts
of the mother company). If only a minority of the outstanding common voting stock went back to
the mother, then the spin-off would be heavily leveraged but the insiders would have majority
control (and thus a rather clear incentive and capacity to go their own way).
In designing a spin-off transaction, consideration must also be given to the creditors of the mother
firm. Ordinarily some consent of the creditors might be necessary before major assets were spun
off . It might also be possible to drop down liabilities (as well as assets) into the spun-off firm.
Such a reassignment of debts would typically require the consent of the affected creditors. If the
mother enterprise was distressed (as would often be the case), the creditors might prefer their
chances of being paid directly by the spun-off firm.
The following is an example of a spin-off using an asset drop-down transaction.
5,000 LiabilitiesAssets 14,000
Mother Firm Before Asset Drop-Down Transaction
The staff of the to-be-spun-off business unit invests 1,500 in a new company (perhaps through an
ESOP trust). Assets worth 6,000 are dropped down to the spin-off firm in return for 4,000 worth
of preferred stock and dropping 2,000 worth of debts.
3,000 Old LiabilitiesPreferred Stock 4,000(2,000 debts dropped to Spinoff)Other Assets 8,000
[Assets dropped down
in return for preferred stock[Liabilities& taking over debts]dropped to
Spinoff firm]Spin-Off Firm
2,000 Dropped LiabilitiesDropped Assets 6,000
Cash 1,5004,000 Preferred Stock to Mother
1,500 Insider Equity
A variation on this would be where the mother firm owed the spun-off workers 1,500 in back wages. Then 1,500 in cash or other assets would be dropped down to the new firm to pay that debt and to provide the beginning equity for those workers.
Role of the Government
This sort of spin-off restructuring is possible with no new physical or financial resources. But it does require new initiatives and new mind-sets. It requires the middle managers and the workers in the unit to see that their prospects are brighter and their fate more in their own hands if they do the spin-off into a quasi-separate firm than if they remain part of the "empire" of the large mother firm. And it requires a change in the top managers of the mother firm to let the "empire" transform itself into a looser complex of contractually-related small and medium-sized firms. Above all, it means moving away from the strategy that bigger is better either in terms of market power or lobbying power with the ministries for subsidies and favors.
If ambitious middle managers have to wait for the top managers to voluntarily agree to a part of their empire to become partly independent, then they might have to wait a very long time. Here is where government support might be crucial. There has to be a pincer action on the top management of the large dinosaurs to promote the spin-offs: middle managers pushing from below and government pushing from above. Governments have many levers of action such as tax, utility, and wage arrears as well as preconditions for any future assistance. In the reorganization type of bankruptcy, spin-offs of the viable parts of a firm should be a standard option.
Thus there could be a public program, perhaps sponsored by a ministry for promoting small and medium-sized firms, where spin-offs would be fostered in any large firm (say over 1000 workers) which had tax, utility, or wage arrears or "required" some form of government assistance, i.e., in most if not all large firms. If the middle managers and the workers in a unit could satisfy certain objective requirements, then the top management in the mother firm would be obliged to negotiate in good faith to arrange the spin-off (or have default terms imposed by law).