Schroders says backs UK Plc, warns on dividends, pay

LONDON (Reuters) - British asset manager Schroders SDR.L said it will back companies seeking to protect their businesses from the economic hit of coronavirus, but warned any fresh capital-raising should result in a suspension of dividends and review of board pay.

In an open letter to UK Plc dated April 1, seen by Reuters and reported earlier by the FT, Jessica Ground, global head of stewardship and Sue Noffke, head of UK equities at Schroders, said the virus created an unprecedented challenge.

“Our message is clear: in the short term companies need to prioritise their key stakeholders, in particular employees but also customers and suppliers. We believe that by focusing on these drivers of long-term returns, the benefits to UK investors and the economy will eventually be forthcoming,” they wrote.

The primary focus for companies should be on maintaining the business rather than shareholder relations, which could include reassessing whether it was “prudent” to pay dividends.

While backing UK rules that give existing shareholders the right to have first refusal in new capital raisings, it urged a “pragmatic approach” and would support “greater flexibility in appropriate cases until further notice”.

Schroders would seek clarity on a company’s working capital needs, as well as any potential litigation that they are aware of and any significant changes post the last report and accounts, they wrote.

“We would look for companies to continue to offer existing shareholders their entitlement to participate as far as possible in the circumstances. Where companies seek additional capital, we would expect their boards to suspend dividends and to reconsider management’s remuneration.”

Reporting by Simon Jessop