Companies whose bosses take pay cuts during the Covid-19 crisis should be wary of handing them lucrative share awards at the same time, investment advisers have warned.
Amid pressure from investment firms such as Schroders, which demanded that company directors “share the pain” of coronavirus, a flurry of executives have accepted wage reductions, made charity donations or waived bonuses.
But some firms, including those receiving state support to pay “furloughed” staff, have gone ahead with controversial long-term incentive plans (LTIPs) that hand directors sizeable stock awards if they hit targets.
On Thursday, insurer Prudential announced executive pay cuts “in the light of the current situation and the need for continued restraint in executive remuneration”.
For chief executive Michael Wells, that meant a salary reduction of £23,000, to £1.15m.
Less than four hours later, in a separate disclosure, the insurer handed Wells an LTIP worth £878,873 at current share prices.
He will not get anything for three years and will have to meet stretching performance criteria to receive the maximum amount of 83,782 shares.
But the stock could be worth significantly more by the time the scheme pays out in April 2023, if markets rebound once the Covid-19 pandemic eases.
Prudential was approached for comment.
ITV directors including chief executive Carolyn McCall volunteered to take a 20% pay cut and forfeit their 2020 bonuses.
Three days later, ITV announced LTIPs and other share-based bonus payments, including some related to 2019, a year for which investors will receive no dividend.
The payments, which come despite ITV putting some staff on the state-backed furlough scheme, would be worth £3.2m to McCall alone, even at current low share prices.
A spokesperson pointed out that ITV “retains full discretion to adjust final outcomes under the awards to ensure that they are warranted […] taking into account all relevant factors”.
Channel 4 has already paid out millions in bonuses to bosses and staff while opening talks with the government about potentially tapping an emergency £75m credit facility.
At Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express newspapers, nearly 1,000 staff are going on furlough, meaning they will be paid 80% of their salary.
Senior staff including boss Jim Mullen will also forfeit 20% of their pay. On 30 March, Mullen was handed a 750,000-share LTIP worth more than £650,000 at present. Like ITV, Reach said it could adjust payouts retrospectively if they balloon.
G4S granted LTIPs worth a notional £9m this week to 10 senior staff, a month after a similar scheme from previous years paid out stock worth £5m.
The security firm also stressed that it could retrospectively adjust LTIP payouts and said directors were taking no 2020 bonus.
Investment institutions managing pension fund money will be watching closely to make sure firms rein in any LTIPs artificially inflated by stock market recovery.
“In the overall context of the company, the experience of the workforce, the experience of shareholders, companies should think about making a gesture,” said Hans-Christoph Hirt of Federated Hermes, which advises investors holding $877bn (£700bn) of assets.
“If there’s a relatively quick recovery there may be windfall profits that are not really related to company performance but to the fact that there was a crisis and the government supported the overall economy.”
He also warned against the temptation to redraw LTIP criteria in favour of bosses who might otherwise face diminished rewards.
“It is critical not to allow readjustment of performance targets at this point,” he said.
“If you start to fiddle around with them and say things have changed and targets need to be lowered, pay wouldn’t go down for 2020.”
Shareholder advisory group Pirc would also be happy to see the back of LTIPs.
“It happened during the banking crisis,” said Tim Bush, Pirc’s head of governance. “The fall in share price created volatility that helped executives meet the rise in share price criteria.
“This crisis has shown that they are not aligned with the interests of shareholders.”
Amid renewed scrutiny on pay, executive sacrifices are proving varied.
Monzo founder-boss Tom Blomfield will forego a year’s pay worth £1m, while Sky’s Jeremy Darroch has pledged half his more than £1m salary to pandemic relief. BT’s chief Philip Jansen, who has himself had coronavirus, matched Darroch’s donation.
Bank bosses, accustomed by now to outrage over corporate greed, have weighed in to differing degrees, under pressure from the Bank of England to show restraint.
Alison Rose, boss of state-backed RBS, offered up 25% of salary and all of her bonus. Lloyds executives will lose only their bonuses.
There is new parsimony at Persimmon, the housebuilder castigated for the £76m bonus handed to former boss Jeff Fairburn.
Its board is taking a 20% pay cut and foregoing bonuses while workers are furloughed.
Meanwhile BAE Systems has said it will review its pay plans at the half year.
Company bosses’ sacrifices
Monzo Tom Blomfield, 100% salary cut for 12 months
Sky Jeremy Darroch, six months’ salary donated
BT Philip Jansen, six months’ salary donated
RBS Alison Rose, 25% salary cut, no bonus
Ryanair Michael O’Leary, 50% salary cut in April/May
ITV Carolyn McCall, 20% cut, no 2020 bonus
Virgin Atlantic Shai Weiss, 20% cut from April to July
easyJet Johan Lundgren, 20% cut for initial three months
Lloyds Antonio Horta-Osorio, no bonus for 2020
BAE Systems Charles Woodburn, pledged to review