This Oil Company CEO Made $52 Million Last Year. Or Maybe He Made $31 Million.

In the past few days, both the NYT and the WSJ published lists showing how much CEOs of big companies made in 2009. But when you put the lists side by side, you see some funny things.

Take Ray Irani, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum. The Times says he made $31 million last year. The WSJ says he made $52 million. Not a trivial difference!

The number crunchers who put these lists together use different formulas for totaling up CEO pay. And the discrepancy in Irani's case points to broader issue with executive pay: CEOs make most of their money from bonuses, which often have complicated structures — some cash, some stock; some granted in one year, but paid another year, or paid out over many years; or whatever.

So if you're, say, a shareholder in a company, and you want to figure out how much the company is paying a CEO, it's hard to find a clear, simple number.

For Irani, the WSJ's figure includes more than $20 million in bonus payments that aren't included in the NYT's figure. That's because the WSJ reports on bonuses the year they are granted, not the year they are paid out. (Thanks to Steven Sabow of the Hay Group, the firm that compiled the WSJ's list, for explaining this to me.)

The SEC has tried to address all this complexity by requiring companies to publish something called a "Summary Compensation Table" in their annual proxy statements. But as the discrepancy between the Times and the Journal figures show, this still leaves a lot of latitude for interpretation.

If you want to dig around in the world of executive compensation, you can search for companies' proxy statements with the SEC's search tool. Plug in the company you're interested in, then look for something called form Def 14A, which is the SEC's code for the proxy statement.

Besides the summary compensation table, proxies list the value of various perks that CEOs get, which can be fun. How often did the CEO of your company take private trips on the corporate jet last year?

Here's the Occidental Petroleum proxy, to get you started.

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