Top executives’ pay fell during Covid crisis, but don’t expect it to stay down for long

August 19, 2021

Pay committees read popular mood correctly during pandemic but how they behave on way back up will be revealing

Amazing: the average pay for the club of FTSE 100 chief executives did what it is supposed to do in tougher times. It fell. The median pay packet was £2.69m in 2020, down from £3.25m the year before, calculates the High Pay Centre. In fact last year’s average was the lowest since 2009. At the peaks in 2013 and 2017, the figure went as high as £3.97m.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge the fall, while also stating that, at 86 times the median earnings of a full-time UK worker, the average Footsie boss probably did not have to adjust his or her lifestyle.

Likewise, one should mention that eight of nine companies that used the government’s furlough scheme and did not repay the sums correctly read the popular mood and awarded no annual bonus to the boss. That was the right call, and JD Sports’ claim to exceptionalism was always ridiculous; the chair of its remuneration committee was justifiably voted out by independent shareholders last month.

But let’s not try to draw grand conclusions from data for an exceptional year. The revealing bit will be how pay committees behave on the way back up. Will executives push for “catch-up” rewards to compensate them for a year of relative restraint, as they may see it? Has there been pressure on pay committees to set soft financial targets in share-based incentive schemes? That stuff is hard to measure, but it happens.

Also remember that the FTSE 100 index rose by a fifth in the 12 months after March 2020, which will have a transformative effect on some executives’ share-based incentive rewards for 2021. Do not be shocked if a multi-year low in pay for FTSE 100 chief executives is followed by a multi-year high.

City fund managers should speak up

This is what infuriates the outside world about City fund managers who warble about their cuddly “stakeholder” credentials: the refusal to debate issues when the going gets tough.

A coalition of 35 health charities, public health experts and doctors from around the world wrote an open letter this week to investors in Vectura urging them to reject the £1bn takeover from Philip Morris, the Marlboro tobacco giant. The effort was probably futile from the off – and definitely looks so now that the bidder has bagged 22.6% of Vectura’s shares in the market – but it is reasonable to expect big fund managers to consider outside arguments and form an opinion on the ethics of selling a respiratory treatment firm to a tobacco titan.

Obviously, one doesn’t expect every fund to agree. Some may take the view that, yes, it’s terrific news that Philip Morris intends to quit the fags one day and, in the meantime, will invest in more socially useful ventures. Alternatively, one can agree with the medics that Vectura, as a research outfit, will be damaged by taking big tobacco’s shilling and that its current investors ought to consider more than just price in a takeover situation.

The point, though, is that you have a view. And, if you’re managing other people’s money, you should share it. Or, at least, that is true of any fund house that sells its services on the basis that it does investment thoughtfully. How can anybody tell what you’re thinking if you clam up at the point you suspect some of your clients won’t share your conclusion?

The case for a Sydney switch

Still, at least one can get a view from an index-tracking specialist on BHP’s plan to switch its primary listing from London to Sydney, which would mean dropping out of the FTSE 100 index.

On one hand, it will be “disappointing” to lose “a company of BHP’s calibre”, says Nick Stansbury, Legal & General Investment Management’s head of climate solutions. On the other, he pointed to “a robust and clearly articulated value case”, meaning the potential for the UK shares to re-rate upwards to narrow the discount with the Australian class.

LGIM will “continue to review the proposal” but, on the current line of thinking, BHP can probably relax. It is always easier to sell a listing proposal when one sees how the share price could get a shove in the right direction. This does not feel like a rerun of Unilever’s failed Dutch larks.

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