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CEO pay isn’t set by markets, Mr. Finlay said in an e-mail interview. Instead, it is “determined by a small clique of like-minded directors, most of whom are themselves past and current CEOs with a vested interest in perpetuating a failed, but to them, remarkably generous, system.”

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the country’s second-richest man after Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, doesn’t go quite that far. But he did write in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders last year that “too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance.”

Some boards are starting to agree. Harvard law professor Lucian Bebchuk, co-author of “Pay Without Performance,” said board members have been calling him to talk about proposals he made this year at a handful of companies to give shareholders a louder voice on pay.

As a shareholder activist, he engaged three of them — American International Group Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Home Depot. All agreed that CEO compensation should be ratified by the entire board of directors, not just the compensation committee.

“I did not expect boards to be so willing to make changes,” he said.

Adding up perks

The Securities and Exchange Commission required companies starting this year to more completely disclose what they are paying their top executives. But the SEC’s approach has been criticized for failing to provide useful figures for investors; the AP, in consultation with leading experts, came up with its own formula designed specifically to isolate the value of all compensation awarded to CEOs in the previous year.

Of the 386 companies in the AP list — those whose fiscal years ended after Dec. 15, and who reported by June 1 under the new SEC rules — only six reported that their CEOs made less than $1 million last year.

The lowest paid was Costco’s Mr. Sinegal.

This year’s expanded disclosure requirements also offer a much more detailed look at perks given to top executives. They range from multimillion-dollar tax payments on behalf of executives to much smaller amounts for household bills, including home alarm monitoring.

A handful of companies, including Washington Mutual Inc., have stopped offering perks, and compensation consultants say many more are likely to do so as boards think twice about the repercussions of seeing their largess disclosed in proxy statements.

The AP formula, developed with advice from Pearl Meyer & Partners and Mercer Human Resource Consulting, adds up salaries, bonuses, perks, above-market interest on pay that is set aside for later and what companies estimated the current value to be of restricted stock and options awards on the day they were granted last year.

This differs from the summary compensation formula that the SEC requires companies to use in proxy statements. Some executive-pay consultants say the SEC formula is of less value to investors because it includes expenses that companies recognize during the year for current and previously awarded stock grants.

That tends to overstate in some cases, and understate in others, the specific pay decisions boards of directors took during the year, they said.

SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said the SEC is looking at the statements it receives this year and could change the rules.

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