By Sinead Cruise and Muvija M
LONDON (Reuters) – British insurers cancelled more than 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) of dividends on Wednesday, in moves welcomed by the Bank of England which had cautioned the sector about the risk of heavy costs from the spread of the coronavirus.
Aviva <AV.L>, Direct Line <DLGD.L>, RSA <RSA.L> and Lloyds of London member Hiscox <HSX.L> all said they would halt planned payouts due to the uncertainty over the pandemic’s impact on their businesses, customers and the global economy.
The cancellations represent another crushing blow to many pension funds and individual investors who have anchored their portfolios with insurance company stocks and who have come to rely on their historically secure income streams and growth.
“This is a difficult decision, not least in terms of the initial impact it will have on shareholders,” RSA Chairman Martin Scicluna said.
“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,” Scicluna added.
Shares in Aviva, Direct Line, Hiscox and RSA had suffered falls ranging from 1% to 8% by 0930 GMT.
Aviva, RSA and Direct Line were set to pay an aggregate 1.2 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) in dividends for the period.
A spokeswoman for Hiscox did not give details on the capital it would retain, as its payout depends on scrip dividend take up. In 2018, the company paid a final dividend of $81.4 million.
Regulators including Europe’s EIOPA and Britain’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) had earlier urged insurers to show restraint on dividends as well as bonuses to senior staff.
“When insurers are considering whether or not to proceed with any dividend payments, their boards should pay close attention to the need to protect policy holders and maintain safety and soundness,” the Bank of England said in a statement.
“Decisions regarding capital or significant risk management issues need to be informed by a range of scenarios, including very severe ones,” it added.
Wednesday’s actions leave Legal & General (L&G) <LGEN.L> and Prudential <PRU.L> as the last remaining UK sector heavyweights to resist pulling payouts.
L&G said last week it was committed to its distribution and that its solvency position remained robust despite significant market volatility, while Prudential chief Mike Wells on March 11 described his firm’s policy as “appropriate”.
But some analysts said it was possible others would follow their rivals’ lead.
“We would not rule out other UK insurers following this precedent and see Beazley <BEZG.L>, St James’s Place <SJP.L>, Prudential and M&G <MNG.L> as all having higher levels of uncertainty at the current time,” JP Morgan analysts said, adding L&G had one of the highest levels of asset risk.
The moves come just over a week after the PRA asked major UK banks to suspend their dividends and scrap cash rewards for executives and other high-fliers.
Aviva also said it would review all material company spending as part of plans to insulate its business from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The company said it remained “well capitalised with strong liquidity” and retention of the final dividend would boost the group capital ratio by around 7% to approximately 182%.
Hiscox, which underwrites a range of risks including fine art, classic cars, kidnap and ransom, said it would also not propose an interim dividend payment for 2020 or conduct any share buyback.
Britain’s biggest motor insurer Direct Line said it would make no changes to staffing until at least autumn as it weighs the damage the coronavirus shutdown have had on the industry.
(Additional reporting by David Milliken; Editing by David Holmes and Mark Potter)