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Stock Options Help Canadian Start-Ups Stay Competitive

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Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping never uttered the words, "To get rich is glorious." He seized upon his moment in history with a wave of economic policies that unleashed the industriousness of his people.

That Western media summed up Deng's commitment to change in this phrase rooted in Chinese culture was critical. It has become a signal of China's reorientation to a market economy that has rallied both domestic founders and global investors.

If Andrew Coyne thinks that Justin Trudeau has been obnoxiously ambitious on the world stage, the forthcoming budget is an opportunity for Prime Minister Trudeau to back up media symbolism with game-changing policies that can earn him and Canada a place in global context. Just let those underestimaters underestimate.

Let's consider the domestic debate about stock options.

I wonder if energy sector leaders and the new club called the Canadian Council of Innovators are defending the status quo or advocating for change as they lobby Trudeau Liberals to drop their election promise to increase taxes on stock options.

Matt Saunders, president of the accelerator and fund at Ryerson University, has proposed a one-time $750,000 exemption on stock options. Saunders' proposal is measured in terms of existing tax policy and that policy's $750-million fiscal impact on federal government coffers.

But what would the impact on government revenue be if the TSX was twice as big and 30 to 50 per cent weighted in fast-growing, globally disruptive technology companies?

Each of these groups makes their appeal to the Libs upon the basis that startups need stock options to attract and retain talent. It is on point to highlight that a low Canadian dollar policy makes this element of startup compensation even more important.

Still, worries about attracting and retaining talent for startups did not bring the Liberals to power. Canadians rejected fears and threats and instead chose a chance for change for the better.

Like Harper's GST cuts before it, Liberal campaigning to increase taxes on stock options was designed to ride a wave of discontent. In this case, it is the stagnation of wages and promising employment while top exec comp in Canada rises pro rata with American counterparts without supporting increases in productivity.

Let's catch the wave and propose a capital gains exemption for founders and early stage employees. No cap. There is no need for this policy to cut back to existing tax policy, or for the Liberals to bail out on their ride aimed at execs at Canada's big banks and their ilk.

Maybe Mr. Trudeau is one of the big kahunas?

Canada wants to be a globally competitive home for the world's top innovators.

What kind of policy not only keeps our best here, but makes top founders from all over the world pick Canada over California?

It is not an arbitrary idea moderated by how big the mostly unrealized stock-option payday must be to keep founders on the hamster wheel. In a global context a $750,000 exemption is too low. That doesn't even cover buying a primary family home in many urban markets. Top founders don't reorient their world view for a chance to keep up with the Joneses.

The purpose of this kind of exemption is not only to recruit talent. What Mr. Trudeau really needs to consider is how to prime the pump to create a virtuous cycle of founders who have successful exits and go on to become seed investors in the next wave of new big things.

As we craft policy, let us consider "the impact of this adventure on the minds of men (and women) everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take."

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