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Most annual meetings were quiet affairs. Shareholders did win votes giving them a say in executive compensation at Verizon Communications Inc., Blockbuster Inc. and Motorola Inc. But mutual funds largely backed companies in voting against the initiatives, a poor portent for their future success at slowing the growth of executive compensation.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service helps to put the executive pay issue into a real-world context. CEOs make, on average, 179 times as much as rank-and-file workers, double the 90-to-1 ratio in 1994, according to the federal agency’s calculations.

Options grants and stock awards helped boost CEO pay as much as sixfold during the 1990s economic expansion, said compensation consultant Donald Delves. The stock market bubble burst in 2000 — but CEO pay hasn’t come down since.

By contrast, median household income edged up 8.6 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to U.S. Census data.

If the minimum wage had risen at the same pace as CEO pay since 1990, it would be $22.61 today, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. Instead, the federal minimum wage will rise to $5.85 an hour July 24, the first increase in a decade.

CEOs are also much richer than lower-level executives at their own companies. The average CEO makes 2.5 times more than the average executive in base pay, according to estimates from the Hay Group, a compensation consulting company.

That doesn’t bother S. Randy Lampert, a managing director for investment banking at Morgan Joseph & Co., who advises corporations through the bank’s Activist Defense Group.

“Compensation is only excessive when it exceeds industry norms and the stock performance has been underwhelming,” he said.

Keeping costs down

That’s not how the board — and executives — at Costco Wholesale Corp. see it.

CEO James Sinegal and company Chairman Jeffrey Brotman haven’t received a salary increase in six years, a period when shares of the nation’s largest wholesale club operator rose 28.3 percent.

“The philosophy of the board, in terms of compensating executives, is that we are fairly paid, if not slightly underpaid, relative to other corporate peers,” said Richard Galanti, the company’s chief financial officer and a director. “But that’s OK. It’s a fair wage, but not absurd.

“I think it sends a message to our employees that they don’t see their CEO’s name on the top five highest-paid people in the world,” he said. “It’s a positive message.”

Mr. Sinegal made $411,688. But no need to shed tears for him: Mr. Sinegal also owns 2.4 million Costco shares, worth about $1.3 billion, and has options to buy 1.2 million more shares.

Not every board thinks the same way as Costco’s, which angers J. Richard Finlay, founder of the Centre for Corporate & Public Governance in Toronto, which bills itself as North America’s first independent think tank for corporate ethics.

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