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The soaring stock market helped line the pockets of bosses in the securities industry last year, a new survey of the highest-paid chief executives reports.

The average salary and bonus given to the best-paid CEOs at financial services firms was nearly $2 million in 1996, according to the report being released today by The Conference Board.

Insurance was far behind in second place with an average payout of $950,000. Telecommunications, which was the most generous industry in 1995, fell to third place at $820,000, the business-sponsored study group said.

The study examined 1,445 companies in 13 industries and compared the compensation of the top five executives in each category. The most recent figures available were for 1996.

The totals of annual compensation do not include stock option grants, which are viewed as long-term incentives and can far exceed the total value of salary and bonus.

The average compensation in the other categories was: $765,000 for commercial banks, $722,000 for communications, $635,000 for manufacturing, $600,000 for wholesale trade, $557,000 for energy, $545,000 for utilities, $514,000 for transportation, $481,000 for diversified services, and $469,000 for retail trade.

The average CEO of construction firms were at the bottom of the heap but still received $468,000 in salary and bonus.

Utilities set $6.6 billion merger

DALLAS (AP) -- American Electric Power Co. Inc. is buying Central & South West Corp. for about $6.6 billion in stock, creating a utility giant with more than 8 million customers in 11 states and England.

AEP, the nation's third-largest utility, is based in Columbus, Ohio. Central & South West is based in Dallas.

The deal, announced today, will create a utility with more than 4.6 million customers in the United States and approximately 4 million abroad.

It is the latest in a string of mergers involving U.S. utilities, which are bracing for more competition as states gradually allow customers to choose their power suppliers.

Gasoline prices continue falling

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The average price of gasoline nationwide fell more than 2 cents in the past two weeks because of oversupply, an industry analyst said Sunday.

"Refiners and importers keep cranking out more gasoline than we use," Trilby Lundberg said. "There is a continued imbalance over supply and demand."

The overall average price, including all grades and taxes, was about $1.21 per gallon on Friday, down 2.04 cents in two weeks, according to the Camarillo-based Lundberg Survey of 10,000 stations nationwide.

"Prices are now nearly nine cents lower than Dec. 20, 1996 and have fallen about 12 cents between the end of August and now," Ms. Lundberg said.

Harrah's buying rival Showboat Inc.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (KRT) -- Harrah's Entertainment Inc. plans to buy casino rival Showboat Inc. for $1.15 billion to create the world's largest gaming company, the two companies announced.

In Atlantic City, the deal will give Harrah's, which has a casino-hotel in the Marina area, a presence on the Boardwalk. Showboat is on the Boardwalk at Delaware Avenue.

The merger would make Harrah's the leader in total gaming properties, with 20, and total gaming revenue, with $2 billion, said company spokesman Ralph Berry.

In other business news

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co., the two major utility companies serving Maryland and the District of Columbia, have abandoned a merger plan that would have created one of the nation's largest utilities. Officials said conditions imposed by regulators would have required the new company to provide savings to customers that exceeded those resulting from the merger.

Intimate Brands, the parent company of Bath & Body Works faces a $750,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for improperly shipping cologne and other hazardous substances at least 23 times between Dec. 12, 1995, and Jan. 31, 1996. Intimate Brands said it will contest the fine.

Shareholders of Barnett Banks Inc. and NationsBank Corp. have approved the $14.6 billion acquisition of Barnett by NationsBank, a deal that creates the nation's third-largest bank.

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