Coronavirus: Insurance companies pause dividend payments

By Simon Read
Business reporter

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image copyrightAviva

Insurers Aviva, RSA, Direct Line and Hiscox have scrapped plans to pay dividends to shareholders during the coronavirus crisis.

They acted after financial regulators urged them to pause payouts because of the uncertainty caused by Covid-19.

The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) welcomed "the prudent decision".

"Insurers should pay close attention to the need to protect policyholders and maintain safety and soundness," it said.

"Decisions regarding capital or significant risk management issues need to be informed by a range of scenarios, including very severe ones."

'Last minute pressure'

The Bank of England wrote to banks and insurers at the end of March asking them to suspend dividend payments and hold onto the cash which they may need during the crisis.

Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, HSBC and Standard Chartered kept hold on to a total of £15.6bn which shareholders had been expecting.

Wednesday's action by insurers saw them keep back millions they had promised to shareholders in dividend payments.

Aviva had declared an annual dividend of 30.9p a share, RSA a 23.1p dividend and Direct Line a 21.6p dividend.

"The regulator is clearly very keen for insurers to retain capital going into the next few months, and given the number of dividend cuts this morning we suspect some last minute pressure was applied to bring the industry to heel," said William Ryder, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

However rival insurer Legal & General ignored the Bank of England's advice and announced last week it intends to stick with its 2019 final dividend.

Strong capital position

The insurers scrapping dividends temporarily all said they remain in a strong capital position.

Aviva said: "The Board has taken this decision in the wake of the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 presents for businesses, households and customers, and the adverse and highly uncertain impact on the global economy."

RSA Chairman Martin Scicluna said: "This is a difficult decision, not least in terms of the initial impact it will have on shareholders.

"No company exists in a vacuum and at this time we judge it to be in the best long-term interests of RSA to show forbearance on dividends and maximise our capability to support customers under the terms of their respective policies and play our part in industry initiatives to support relief efforts."

Despite their capital strength, insurers - like banks - are set to face a lot of financial pressures, pointed out William Ryder.

"The coming months are not going to be normal," he said. "Motor insurance claims are falling thanks to empty roads, but it's possible that other claims may rise going forward."

'Real strain'

Earlier this week companies were warned not to scrap dividends "unnecessarily" because of the negative effect on pension savers.

The Investment Association wrote to FTSE 350-listed firms urging those that cut dividends to restart "as soon as it is prudent to do so".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMost savers leave money locked away in the same account

It pointed out that dividends are an important income stream for many savers, pensioners and institutional investors, including pension funds and charities.

"The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused real strain across the economy and so it is right that investors help steady the ship," said Chris Cummings, chief executive of the Investment Association.

But he warned that companies that don't play fair will be held to account.

"We are trusted by millions of pension savers to invest their money wisely and that means taking a long-term view, backing companies that do the right thing, and holding those that don't to account."

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