RSUs vs. Traditional Stock: What's the Difference?‍

Casey Fenton

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December 13, 2023

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Imagine being an early employee at a company like Amazon, where your compensation includes Restricted Stock Units (RSUs). Fast forward a few years, and those once modestly-valued RSUs have skyrocketed, turning long-term employees into millionaires almost overnight. This was the reality for many Amazon employees who were granted RSUs, reaping the rewards of the company's astronomical growth. 

Now, contrast this with traditional stocks, where the initial investment risk is shouldered by the shareholder, and the path to profitability can be a rollercoaster of market fluctuations and nail-biting decisions. The stark difference between the two forms of equity compensation brings us to an essential question: RSUs or traditional stocks, which one offers a more advantageous route for employees navigating the complex world of stock options? 

This article will delve into the intricacies of both, guiding you through a comprehensive understanding and helping you navigate through your equity compensation journey with informed precision.

What is Traditional Stock?

Traditional stocks are shares of a company that represents ownership. When you buy or are granted traditional stocks, you become a shareholder of that company. This means you have a stake in the company's success (or failure).

Characteristics of Traditional Stocks

What makes up a traditional stock? Beyond the ticker symbols and fluctuating prices, there are fundamental components that define how traditional stocks function and what they offer to you as a shareholder

1. Shares

At the heart of traditional stock is the concept of shares. Each share represents a fraction of ownership in a company. When you buy or are granted shares, you're essentially purchasing a piece of the company.

2. Voting Rights

One of the primary components of traditional stocks is the voting power they confer. As a shareholder, you have a vote or a say in certain company decisions, typically proportional to the number of shares you hold.

3. Dividends

These are regular payments made by companies to their shareholders, usually from profits. Not all companies offer dividends, but those that do see it as a way to return value to their shareholders.

4. Stock Market

Traditional stocks are traded on stock markets or exchanges. This component is crucial as it provides liquidity, allowing shareholders to buy or sell their shares based on market prices.

What are Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)?

RSUs are a bit different. They are a promise from your employer to grant you shares of the company's stock at a future date. This date is typically tied to certain conditions, like staying with the company for a specific period or achieving certain performance metrics.

Characteristics of RSUs

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) have become a popular form of equity compensation, especially among tech companies, due to their straightforwardness and ability to incentivize employee retention and performance. But what exactly are RSUs and how do they function within the broader context of employee compensation and investment? 

1. No Immediate Ownership

Unlike traditional stocks, RSUs do not confer immediate ownership. They represent a promise that employees will receive shares after a specified vesting period, which is often contingent upon either tenure at the company or meeting certain performance milestones.

2. Vesting Schedule

The vesting schedule is an important characteristic of RSUs. It outlines the timeline and/or conditions under which the RSUs will convert into actual shares that the employee will own. Common vesting schedules might include a cliff (a period in which no RSUs vest, followed by a large batch that does) or gradual vesting over several years.

3. Taxation

Taxation of RSUs is typically straightforward but can be a significant consideration. In most jurisdictions, RSUs are taxed at the time they vest, with the amount of tax due based on the fair market value of the shares at that time. However, tax regulations can vary, so it’s crucial to understand the specific rules applicable to your location.

4. No Dividends

RSUs do not provide dividends in the way traditional stocks do because the employee does not actually own the stock until it vests. However, some companies offer “dividend equivalents,” which accrue and are paid out once the RSUs vest.

5. No Voting Rights

Until RSUs vest and are converted into actual shares, holders of RSUs do not have voting rights in the company. This is a notable difference from traditional stocks, which often confer voting rights as soon as they are purchased or granted.

6. Alignment with Company Performance

Often, RSUs are structured in a way that aligns employee rewards with company performance. For instance, vesting might be tied to the achievement of specific financial metrics by the company, ensuring that employees are rewarded when the company does well.

RSUs vs. Traditional Stock: Which is the Best Investment?

In the world of equity compensation and investments, the debate often circles around the value proposition of Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) versus traditional stocks. Both come with their own set of advantages, but how do they stack up against each other? And more importantly, which one emerges as the better investment

Predictability vs. Volatility

One of the standout advantages of RSUs is their predictability. You know upfront the number of units you'll receive, and their value is tied to the company's stock price at vesting. This contrasts with traditional stocks, which can be subject to market volatility. While traditional stocks offer the potential for significant gains, they also come with the risk of substantial losses. RSUs, being a form of granted compensation, essentially act as a guaranteed bonus, even if the stock price drops.

Liquidity Concerns

Traditional stocks shine when it comes to liquidity. Once you own them, you can sell them almost immediately on the open market. RSUs, on the other hand, need to vest before you can access them. However, this lack of immediate liquidity in RSUs can be seen as a forced savings or investment strategy, ensuring that employees hold onto their stocks for a longer period, potentially benefiting from long-term company growth.

Tax Implications

RSUs have a clear taxation event at vesting, based on their fair market value. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, you know exactly when and how you'll be taxed. On the other, if the stock price is high at vesting, you might face a hefty tax bill. Traditional stocks offer more flexibility in terms of when you realize gains and pay taxes, especially if you're dealing with long-term capital gains. However, RSUs can compensate for this by offering a predictable and structured tax event, allowing for better financial planning.

Dividends and Voting Rights

Traditional stocks often come with dividends and voting rights, giving shareholders a direct benefit from company profits and a say in company decisions. RSUs typically don't offer these perks until they vest. However, many companies offer dividend equivalents for RSUs, which accrue and are paid out upon vesting. As for voting rights, while RSU holders might miss out initially, they gain these rights once the RSUs vest and convert into actual shares.

Alignment with Company Goals

RSUs often have vesting conditions tied to company performance metrics, ensuring that employees are directly aligned with the company's success. Traditional stocks don't have this built-in alignment. This means that RSUs can foster a stronger connection between employee performance and company outcomes, potentially driving better overall results for the company.

Flexibility Test: RSUs vs. Traditional Stock

When it comes to investments and equity compensation, flexibility can be a pivotal factor. It determines how easily you can access, manage, and utilize your assets. Here’s how RSUs and traditional stock fare in the flexibility test, ensuring informed decision-making for your equity of choice.

  • Access and Liquidity: Traditional stocks undoubtedly take the lead when it comes to liquidity. Once you own them, you can typically buy or sell them at market prices during trading hours. RSUs, however, are bound by vesting schedules, limiting immediate access. But this apparent limitation of RSUs can also be viewed positively: they provide a built-in mechanism for long-term saving and investing, potentially safeguarding you from impulsive financial decisions and market fluctuations.

  • Tax Planning: Traditional stocks offer more flexibility in tax planning. You decide when to sell and, therefore, when to incur capital gains tax. With RSUs, the tax event is typically set at the time of vesting, which might not always align with your optimal tax strategy. However, RSUs provide a structured and predictable tax event, which can be beneficial for individuals who prefer a set timeline for financial planning and those who might not be as savvy in managing tax events strategically.

  • Investment Strategy: Traditional stocks allow for active management and strategic planning, enabling you to buy or sell based on market conditions. RSUs, conversely, don’t offer this active management component. But this “set and forget” nature of RSUs can be advantageous for individuals who prefer a hands-off investment strategy and those who want to avoid the stress and risks associated with active trading.

  • Income Stream: Traditional stocks, especially those that pay dividends, can provide an ongoing income stream. RSUs do not provide this immediate income, as they do not pay dividends until after they have vested. However, some companies offer dividend equivalents on RSUs, which accrue and are paid out upon vesting, ensuring that you do not miss out on this aspect of compensation.

  • Risk Management: RSUs provide a cushion against market downturns since they are granted at no cost to the employee. Traditional stocks, purchased on the open market or through stock options, expose the owner to a degree of financial risk. While RSUs might lack the immediate upside of traditional stocks in a booming market, they provide a secure and risk-free addition to your investment portfolio.

RSUs and Traditional Stock in a Global Equity Arena

Now, let’s explore how RSUs and traditional stock perform on the global stage, and why many multinational companies and their international employees might lean towards one over the other.

  • Regulatory Compliance: RSUs often emerge as a preferred choice for companies with a global workforce due to their relative simplicity in regulatory compliance. Unlike traditional stock options, RSUs can be structured in a way that mitigates the complexities of adhering to varied securities laws and tax regulations across different countries. This simplification can be advantageous for both employers and employees by providing a clear and unified framework for equity compensation, regardless of geographical location.

  • Taxation Challenges: The taxation of traditional stock and RSUs can vary significantly from one country to another. Traditional stocks might expose international employees to varied tax implications based on market value fluctuations and the timing of buy/sell transactions. RSUs, with their predetermined vesting schedules, offer a more standardized approach to taxation, although the exact tax treatment can still vary by country. Employers often prefer the structured and predictable nature of RSU taxation, which can be communicated and managed more seamlessly across a diverse workforce.

  • Equity Value and Currency Fluctuations: For employees working in different countries, the value of equity compensation can be significantly impacted by currency fluctuations. Traditional stocks, which might be bought and sold in varied market conditions, can expose international employees to currency risk. RSUs, with their set vesting schedules and lack of upfront cost to employees, can provide a buffer against currency fluctuations and market volatility, ensuring a more stable and predictable equity compensation value.

  • Global Employee Perception: In some global markets, RSUs might be perceived as a more tangible and less risky benefit compared to traditional stocks. The guarantee of receiving a set number of shares in the future (subject to vesting) can be seen as a direct and straightforward benefit, whereas traditional stock options might be viewed as more speculative and complex to manage, especially in regions with less familiarity with stock market investments.

  • Alignment with Global Performance Metrics: For multinational companies, RSUs can be structured to align with global performance metrics, ensuring that employees worldwide are focused on unified company goals. Traditional stocks lack this inherent alignment with company performance, which might result in a less cohesive global strategy and employee incentive structure.

Verdict

Navigating the ecosystem of RSUs and traditional stocks presents a distinct journey for every employee. RSUs offer a stable, predictable path, safeguarding your journey with minimized risk and structured growth, especially beneficial in a global context. Traditional stocks, while providing liquidity and potential dividends, demand a more active, strategic approach to navigate through the market’s ebbs and flows. 

Your choice between the structured path of RSUs and the more dynamic route of traditional stocks should align with your financial goals, risk tolerance, and investment strategy, ensuring your journey through the equity landscape is both strategic and aligned with your financial aspirations.

Want to know more about the distinctions between RSUs and other types of equity compensation? Feel free to browse Upstock’s learning materials or visit our blog here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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