Workers crossing London Bridge with the Shard in the background
Rising wages for top executives come at a time when many workers are facing an increasing squeeze on their finances © Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Pay for top British bosses has bounced back to pre-coronavirus levels as company boards shed pandemic-era pay restraint and cashed in on bonus plans set during the economic dislocation caused by Covid-19.

Overall pay for chief executives in the FTSE 100 has reached a median average of £3.6mn, according to Deloitte’s 2022 AGM-season report, similar to the level struck in 2018 and near the record high of £4mn in 2017.

CEO wages fell to £2.8mn in 2020 after bosses cut their pay during the pandemic. This was also a period when many companies set this year’s bonuses, which typically reflected pessimism about prospects for Covid-hit companies that instead went on to grow strongly, helping boost payouts.

The resurgence in the fortunes of CEOs reflects in particular the return of bumper payouts from annual bonuses and long-term incentive plans. The FTSE 100 climbed more than 14 per cent in 2021, helping take median annual bonus payouts — often linked to share prices — to 89 per cent of the maximum possible awards, the highest level for more than five years.

The extent of the pay rises across the FTSE 100 was such that Deloitte found a fifth of companies used so-called negative discretion to reduce agreed increases for their bosses.

Fast-rising wages for top executives come at a time when many workers are facing an increasing squeeze on their finances because of the UK cost of living crisis. Deloitte found that the median employee to FTSE 100 chief executive pay ratio was 1:81, compared with 1:59 in 2020 and 1:75 in 2019.

Investors have appeared less concerned about the need to rein in executive pay. Deloitte found that so far this year there had been fewer investor revolts on directors’ remuneration reports, with just 6 per cent receiving “low votes” — less than 80 per cent in favour of their annual remuneration report — compared with 13 per cent in 2021.

The group also found a growing focus on climate and other environment, social and governance issues, with 90 per cent of FTSE 100 companies now incorporating measures and targets into executive incentive plans.

Stephen Cahill, vice-chair at Deloitte, said executives may not enjoy such increases given that with the war in Ukraine, the “rising cost of living and an uncertain geopolitical environment, the year ahead could be more challenging”.

“Investors will rightly hold companies to account where performance does not justify payouts or where executives are seen to be insulated from the wider employee experience,” he added.

Cahill said payouts were set last year when few could have predicted the current cost of living crisis for many in the UK. He also pointed to signals that businesses were trying to improve pay for all staff.

“Some companies are looking for mid-year pay rises or graded pay raises so those at the bottom get higher increases than those at the top.”

Total CEO pay packages reported for 2021 included estimated values of long-term incentive awards. Deloitte’s report includes data for 95 companies with financial years ending on or after March 1 2021. The voting analysis covers 50 companies that had held their AGM by May 20.

Letter in response to this article:

Constant focus on chief executive pay can be counterproductive / From Tom Gosling, Executive Fellow, London Business School, London NW1, UK

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