solomon-lew-and-scott-morrison
Premier Investments owner Solomon Lew and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Ellen Smith)

After the AFR splashed with the headline “JobKeeper becomes DividendKeeper” yesterday there was quite a pile on against companies receiving large wage subsidies while paying increased dividends to shareholders. And fair enough. The optics are terrible.

The initial focus was on two retailers, Adairs and Nick Scali. Adairs declared a hefty $11.3 million payout to shareholders, along with a tasty $400,000 to chief executive Mark Ronan, and Nick Scali increased its dividend to $3.9 million, most of which goes to the founding Scali family.

But this is an issue which will be market-wide, not just retailers. Yesterday dentist chain 1300 Smiles revealed it would pay $2.9 million to shareholders after receiving $1.8 million in JobKeeper payments.

In the grand scheme of things, these are just the tiddlers. The big ones are yet to come over the balance of this reporting season.

What will everyone say when billionaire Solomon Lew reveals a better than expected profit for his Premier Investments outfit after pocketing more than $50 million in JobKeeper payments and also refusing to pay rent?

In the frequent battles between landlords and tenants, it’s not often you feel sorry for landlords — but that’s the way this pandemic is shaping up.

As Westfield’s parent company Scentre Group noted tersely last week: “The group has not received any funds from the Australian government under its JobKeeper scheme.”

Having established that, Scentre felt it was safe to inform investors the board and chief executive would return to normal salary arrangements from August 1, after taking a three-month cut.

While yesterday’s outrage was about dividend payments to shareholders, there will be a larger backlash when we discover big bonus payments being paid to chief executives whose companies are to get large JobKeeper handouts. This will be the major issue when shareholders come to vote on remuneration reports during the 2020 AGM season in October and November.

If Lew matches in 2019-20 the $6.15 million which his Premier chief executive Mark McInnes was paid in 2018-19, there should be even more outrage than if he just chooses to maintain his personal first-half dividend of $20 million — which was announced on March 30 but isn’t due to be paid until September 30.

Property companies, particularly in the retail and office sectors, have been hard hit by the pandemic, as was seen by the $500 million-plus loss declared by GPT this week.

One of the only major listed landlords not to have taken a big haircut so far is ALE Group, which owns 86 Woolworths-run pubs.

These pubs aren’t eligible for JobKeeper so Woolworths would ordinarily be entitled to ask for some rent relief but it’s presumably big enough to simply keep paying full freight despite being shut down in Melbourne. Let’s hope it’s being just as generous with furloughed staff.

In contrast to the landlords, there have been plenty of retailers surprisingly on the upside during this pandemic — particularly the online specialists such as Kogan and Temple and Webster.

But some bricks and mortar retailers are booming as well. Take listed company Accent Group, which owns more than 500 shoe stores through brands such as Timberland and The Athletes Foot. Its full-year results won’t be released until August 26 but it provided this June 25 update predicting a 10% jump in operating profit to $109 million in 2019-20, despite closing all 500 stores on March 27 for more than a month.

The triple play of rent reductions, JobKeeper and soaring digital sales has been a boon for many retailers, even while their landlords bleed. No wonder shares in Accent Group — which has billionaire Brett Blundy as it largest shareholder with an 18% stake currently worth $133 million — soared from a low of 56c in late March to $1.35 yesterday.

As we’ve argued previously, Australia needs a New Zealand-style website which discloses which employers will pocket the $100 billion-plus forecast to be spent on JobKeeper by the time it wraps up in March.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and with full disclosure many profitable recipients will be embarrassed into exiting the scheme at the end of September.

Qantas will be the biggest single JobKeeper recipient, with total payments expected to exceed $400 million by the end of September and eventually hit more than $600 million by March.

With that sort of largesse, Qantas has arguably been semi-nationalised and payments to shareholders and senior executives should be constrained as much as possible: no bonuses, no dividends, no buybacks.

It should be pretty straightforward but let’s see just how sensible our boards are when it comes to the optics of managing the biggest boondoggle government subsidy program in Australian history.

Peter Fray

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