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Fidelity seeing record growth in stock option plans

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Fidelity Investments has posted record sales in its stock plan administrative services unit.

Since July 1, 2014, the Boston-based investment company has inked 53 new client agreements representing more than 140,000 plan participants.

The deals add $10.8 billion to the stock services platform, and represent four straight years of record sales.

The platform provides the recordkeeping and trade execution for restricted stock plans, performance plans, stock options, and employee stock purchase plans.

Employee Stock Ownership Plans, or ESOPs, are not available through Fidelity’s stock administrative services, according to a company representative.

By some industry accounts, ESOPs are on the wane after a 2014 unanimous Supreme Court decision in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, which said fiduciary sponsors can no longer rely on the “presumption of prudence” argument in so-called company stock-drop cases.

In the wake of that decision, a recent Towers Watson survey of 160 sponsors that offer company stock in 401(k) plans showed more than a quarter have already begun eliminating the option.

But the recent developments at Fidelity suggest many employers still value incentivizing workers with company stock, albeit through options that exist outside of 401(k) offerings.

Company stock options, which can be tied to performance and can also be exercised by participants without the penalties assumed when taking an early withdrawal from a 401(k) account, are popular with technology companies and startups.

A statement from Fidelity said Hewlett-Packard and Pandora are among the recent adopters of the stock services, but non-tech companies are also showing increased interest: Advance Auto Parts, the auto parts supplier, and Bloomin’ Brands, which operates several nation-wide restaurant chains, are also among Fidelity’s new clients.

“Company stock plans are playing an increasingly important role in corporate benefit programs, especially as more companies expand their workforce globally and look for ways to enhance their benefits offering while streamlining the administration of their platform,” said Kevin Barry, executive vice president of Fidelity’s Stock Plan Services business.

“As a result, dozens of companies across a variety of industries have turned to Fidelity to leverage our experience and administrative expertise, to help them provide the best possible experience for their employees around the globe,” added Barry.

The Fidelity spokesperson also said the record growth in Employee Stock Purchase Plans has been aided by an improving job market, as employers look for new ways to attract and retain top talent.

While these types of stock purchase programs exist outside the domain of 401(k) menus, Fidelity does integrate the options in one platform along with defined contribution plans and Health Savings Accounts.

That allows for streamlined benefits administration capabilities, and helps sponsors better communicate total compensation to participants, according to a company release.