The decoupling of Dutch boardroom pay from performance during the Covid-19 outbreak

What happened to Dutch executives’ pay during the pandemic? The shareholder value revolution has coincided with rapid increases in Dutch top managers’ pay. Theoretically, rising executive bonuses should reflect improved corporate performance, as measured by a series of operational and shareholder value indicators. However, critics argue that in practice the relationship between pay and performance is weak. Given its negative impact on the finances of most firms, the Covid-19 pandemic provides an insightful test case.

Our detailed analysis of the remuneration packages paid out to Dutch top managers before and during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic shows that whilst executive pay rose quickly when economic conditions were favourable, it continued to rise at the aggregate level even when the crisis hit. Despite sharp falls in profitability and the receipt of unprecedented levels of government support in 2020, average levels of remuneration of Dutch top managers increased by 15 per cent in the same year.

Pay for performance practices have thus fostered a system that leads to large increases in pay for small improvements, while substantial decreases in pay are rare, even under the most dire circumstances. More broadly, our empirical results show how the growing financialisation and shareholder orientation adopted over the past three decades has promoted a gradual hollowing out of many large Dutch companies. The case of executive pay offers a lens through which we can observe some of the implications of these trends.

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