New York Stock Exchange with Wall street sign in front (Bigstock)

Smiles are once again bristling in corporate executive offices as paychecks approach pre-financial crisis levels.

A Wall Street Journal study of the 104 biggest U.S. companies shows median chief executive compensation at $11.5 million in 2016.

While much of the pay is in future stock awards that might not come for years, the numbers are big by any measure.

“The study makes clear what we’ve all known for decades, which is that the executive pay problem is not going away,” said Robert Jackson Jr., a professor of corporate law at Columbia University Law School. “The silver lining on the report is that boards are getting better at aligning pay with performance, but that alignment is still focused on short-term instruments like stock and stock options instead of long-term growth.”

The Journal analysis found Meg Whitman made $35.6 million as chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., a technology company. That is more than double the $17.1 million she made a year earlier before Hewlett-Packard Co., split in two.

Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Kleenex, Scott tissue, Huggies, and other staples received total compensation in 2016 of $15.7 million.

A spokesman for Kimberly-Clark said the company’s three- and five-year total shareholder return of 24.9 percent and 90.3 percent respectively “demonstrates [Falk’s] value” to the company and its stakeholders.

Viacom’s Philippe Dauman made $93 million during the year even though he was pushed out of his job last summer. Some of the money was paid under a contract agreement he had with the entertainment giant.

Alex Molinaroli, chief executive of Johnson Controls International, another company that has been in transition, earned $46.4 million in the year ended Sept. 30, according to the Journal study.

The Journal analysis reports overall CEO pay rose 6.8 percent between the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.

Much of the rising pay is due to the healthy stock market. Companies share prices are galloping, and CEOs have been rewarded with those shares.

The Journal found a median total return of 17 percent last year among the companies, including share price and dividends.

Much of the higher pay was awarded in various forms of restricted stock or stock options, which have risen as cash bonuses have retreated about 1.4 percent.

John Roe, head of analytics at Institutional Shareholder Services, a proxy advisor to institutional investors, said the compensation committees may have been trying to boost pay for executives after some down years.

“When we were going through these same number for 2015 pay, we saw executives had the lowest pay increases since the financial crisis,” Roe said in an interview. “What we may be seeing for 2016 is a little bit of catchup.”

What no one expected a year ago, when many of the stock grants were made, is the booming stock market following the unexpected election of Donald Trump.

The analysis also shows short-term cash awards were down overall in 2016, which may indicate that executives did not perform up to expectations.

Some big names actually took haircuts in 2016 .

Longtime General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt saw his pay drop to $21.3 million, 35 percent retreat from the previous year. The company saw its oil-and-gas business pressured by lower oil prices.

Even vaunted Apple, the stock market’s most valuable company on the planet, reduced CEO Tim Cook’s pay 15 percent below the previous year, to $8.7 million.

Jackson said the Wall Street Journal study shows the need for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to pass rules providing for greater disclosure and oversight of executive pay by shareholders.

Jackson said shareholders are willing to pay for executive performance, “but these massive increases in CEO compensation  are unlikely to be justified by the kinds of long-term value creation that shareholders want.”

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