Asset managers such as Schroders and M&G have spoken out about the need for companies to show restraint on pay if they are cutting dividends or receiving government support. © AFP/Getty Images

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Businesses in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK were more likely to cut dividends than executive pay this year, despite calls from shareholders for bosses to share the financial pain caused by the pandemic.

More than half of Spanish businesses examined by Georgeson, a corporate governance consultancy, cancelled, postponed or reduced dividends in 2020. Only 29 per cent introduced a temporary reduction in executive pay.

In Italy, 44 per cent of companies changed their dividend policies because of Covid-19, but just 29 per cent cut pay for bosses, according to the review of the annual meeting season in Europe.

This disparity between protection of salaries and bonuses at the top while shareholders have been hit with widespread dividend cuts is emerging as a flashpoint for investors. Asset managers such as Schroders and M&G have spoken out about the need for companies to show restraint on pay if they are cutting dividends or receiving government support.

“Executive remuneration remains a key focal point for investors and was amongst the most contested resolutions in the majority of the markets,” said Georgeson’s Domenic Brancati.

But he added that despite this focus, shareholder revolts over executive pay had fallen slightly across Europe compared with 2019 — suggesting that investors were giving companies some leeway on how they dealt with the pandemic. Investors could become more vocal about this issue next year, he said.

One UK-based asset manager said it was “still having lots of conversations with companies around pay” but for this year had decided not to vote against companies on the issue. But it added the business would watch remuneration and dividends closely next year.

Companies around the world have cut or cancelled dividends in response to the crisis, hitting income streams for many investors. According to Janus Henderson, global dividends had their biggest quarterly fall in a decade during the second quarter, with more than $100bn wiped off their value.

The Georgeson data shows that almost half of UK companies changed their dividend payout, while less than 45 per cent altered executive remuneration. In the Netherlands, executive pay took a hit at 29 per cent of companies, while 34 per cent adjusted dividends.

In contrast, a quarter of Swiss executives were hit with a pay cut but only a fifth of companies cut or cancelled their dividend.

The Georgeson research also found that the pandemic had a significant impact on the AGM process across Europe, with many companies postponing their annual meetings or stopping shareholders from voting during the event.

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