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A Statistical Profile of Employee Ownership

Count of ESOPs and Participants / Plan Asset Value

TypeNumber of PlansTotal ParticipantsEmployer SecuritiesTotal Assets
Standalone ESOPs5,5051.75 million$119.2 billion$133.4 billion
KSOPs1,16412.7 million$145.2 billion$1.2 trillion
Total for all literal ESOPs6,66914.4 million$264.3 billion$1.3 trillion
ESOP-like plans3,2411.1 million$22 billion$56 billion
Total for ESOP and ESOP-like plans9,91015.5 million$286.3 billion$1.4 trillion
Source: NCEO analysis of the Private Pension Plan (PPP) Research File made available by the Department of Labor from data reported on the Form 5500 for filing year 2015.

ESOP-like plans are here defined as profit sharing, stock bonus, and other defined contribution plans that are substantially (at least 20%) invested in employer stock, and have at least five participants.
For more detailed counts and characteristics on ESOPs, see the article ESOPs by the Numbers.

Trends in ESOP Numbers and Participation

ESOPs were given statutory authority in 1974. We believe there were about 250,000 participants in about 1,500 ESOPs in 1975. In the early 2000s, we saw the number of net plans (new plans minus terminations) decline, largely the result of a large number of very small and very dubious plans that were set up (and usually not even funded) to try to take advantage of then recent S corporation ESOP tax law. Congress, the IRS, and the ESOP community all acted to prevent these plans from operating and almost all were then terminated.

Meanwhile, existing ESOPs were growing faster than the economy, meaning that participant and asset numbers increased. One notable development has been the growth of acquisitions of company by existing ESOP companies. We estimate there are 300-400 such acquisitions each year, or about as many new ESOPs are are being formed. For details on this development, read Why Has the Total Number of ESOPs Gone Down But Participation and Assets Gone Up?

The table below shows that the number of plans identified as ESOPs has decreased, but the number of participants has steadily increased.
Filing YearNumber of ESOPsTotal participantsActive participants*
20136,795 13,927,535
20146,717 14,050,344
20156,669 14,431,622
*Active participants include any workers currently in employment covered by a plan and who are earning or retaining credited service under a plan. This category includes any nonvested former employees who have not yet incurred a break in service. Active participants also include individuals who are eligible to elect to have the employer make payments to a Section 401(k) plan.
Determining the percentage owned by the ESOP is difficult since ESOPs are not required to report that figure. From our own survey research and knowledge of the community, we estimate that 30% to 40% of ESOP companies are 100% employee-owned. Allocation amounts are also not commonly reported. We estimate that the mean allocation to accounts as a percentage of payroll is 3% to 4% for public companies and 5% to 8% for private ones.

ESOPs are stock bonus plans qualified to borrow money from or on the sponsoring company's credit; otherwise, ESOPs and stock bonus plans are very similar.

In 2002 there were 1,614 plans that fit into the category of ESOP-like plans. These plans tended to be larger: 66% had more than 50 participants. Over the last several years, this pattern switched. There is also evidence of an increase in these plans over the last several years of that period as shown in the table below.

Trends in ESOP-Like Numbers and Participation

Filing year50 participants or fewerMore than 50 participantsAll ESOP-like plans
Nearly all (98%) of ESOP-like plans identify their plans as profit-sharing. For a comparison of ESOPs, profit sharing plans, and stock bonus plans, see How ESOPs, Profit Sharing Plans, and Stock Bonus Plans Differ as Employee Ownership Vehicles.

Survey Data on Broad-Based Employee Ownership in the US

The NCEO estimates that approximately 32 million Americans own employer stock through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), options, stock purchase plans, and 401(k) plans. The estimate is based a variety of company surveys and, where available, government data. Another way to look at the data was provided by several questions included in the General Social Survey (GSS), a 2014 random sampling of working adults performed by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago. Joseph Blasi and Douglas Kruse of Rutgers and Richard Freeman of Harvard, all affiliated with the Shared Capitalism Project of the National Bureau of Economic Research, organized the questions and their analysis. The NCEO was one of the sponsors of the survey questions, along with the Shared Capitalism Project, the Beyster Institute, the Plan Sponsor Council of America, and the Employee Ownership Foundation. The Shared Capitalism Project receives support from the Rockefeller and the Russell Sage Foundations.

The GSS data are reported in detail in a separate page on this site. In sum, however, they showed that as of 2014, 19.5% of all employees working in the private sector reported owning stock or stock options in their companies, while 7.2% specifically held stock options. Looked at another way, 36% of employees working for companies with stock (this excludes government employers, nonprofits, partnerships, etc.) owned stock or options in their companies. This means that approximately 32 million Americans own employer stock through ESOPs, options, stock purchase plans, and 401(k) plans.

In what follows, we present estimates of equity grants (primarily stock options and restricted stock), and employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs). While about 8% of 401(k) assets are in company stock, these plans serve a very different purpose than other kinds of employee ownership plans and so are excluded from this analysis.

Note that some companies offer multiple employee ownership plans, and many employees participate in more than one plan. For example, many ESPP participants also own stock in a 401(k) plan, get stock options, or have other equity compensation plans. Hence, the total number of participants in all employee ownership plans cannot just be added up to get the total number of employee owners.

Broad-Based Equity Grants

"Broad-based equity grants" are those that grant stock options to 50% or more of full-time employees. Unlike the case with ESOPs, it is not realistic to chart the growth of stock options year-by-year because there are no hard data compiled on a comparable basis year-by-year. We can look back at 1990 and estimate roughly 1 million option holders and look at the present day and estimate roughly 9 million option holders, but it is impossible to accurately say how many employees held options or similar equity awards in any particular year. Why? ESOPs are highly regulated retirement plans, and companies with ESOPs must tell the government every year how many employees are in the plan. The government regularly publishes summaries of these data. Although it is imperfect, it gives us something to go on. For stock options, on the other hand, nothing of the sort is available.

The best data come from the quadrennial General Social Survey, which has been asking respondents if they get stock options at work since 2002. The percentage of all private sector workers receiving options fell from 12.3% in 2002 to 7.2% in 2014, which translates into 8.5 million employees compared to 13.4 million in 2002. New shareholder approval rules, growing concern with dilution, and new accounting rules are the primary culprits. Unfortunately, the GSS data does not provide on how many people get restricted stock and similar equity grants, although we know that with changes in accounting rules for stock options in 2006, many companies shifted to these awards.

Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)

Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs) include both tax-qualified "423 plans," which about 2,500 companies offer, and nonqualified plans, which about 1,500 companies offer. Data are based primarily on the National Association for Stock Plan Professionals' Stock Plan Design and Administration Survey (1998 and every two years thereafter), especially the more recent surveys, and a 2012 paper "Do non-executive employees have information? Evidence from employee stock purchase plans," by Ilona Babenko and Rik Sen. To estimate the number of employees covered under the plans, they took the total number of companies offering plans, multiplied those numbers by the average number of employees in the companies, and multiplied that number by the average percentage of participation in the plans. Almost all companies with ESPPs are public. Babenko and Sen found that in companies with ESPPs between 1998 and 2007, the mean annual contribution of participating employees was $1,630 per year.

Employee Ownership and Corporate Performance

This issue is described in detail in our article Research on Employee Ownership, Corporate Performance, and Employee Compensation. Generally, the results show that ESOPs make a significant contribution to corporate performance, particularly when combined with management styles that stress employee involvement in decision-making at the job level and sharing financial information with employees. Data for broad-based stock options also paint a positive picture, although the results are somewhat more ambiguous.

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