Four of the world's top hedge fund managers took home 10-figure paychecks last year even as the loosely regulated industry delivered its worst returns and hundreds of fund firms were forced out of business.

The industry's 25 best-paid managers collected a total of $11.6 billion, which marked the third-best year on record, according to an annual survey released by Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine on Wednesday.

The total number, however, marks a sharp decline from the $22.5 billion that the industry's best performers took home in 2007. Analysts had expected the overall decline after the average hedge fund lost 19 percent and its size shriveled because investors pulled out roughly $150 billion in assets.

While last year's rankings shifted slightly, the top four earners had been there before.

James Simons, a former mathematics professor who runs hedge fund group Renaissance Technologies, topped the list by earning an estimated $2.5 billion. For 2007, he was in the third spot, having earned $2.8 billion.

John Paulson, who was among the first investors to bet that U.S. housing prices would decline nationally, followed in second place, taking home an estimated $2 billion in 2008.

In 2007, Paulson earned an estimated $3.7 billion, setting a record for the highest payout on Wall Street and topping the Alpha list.

Energy trader John Arnold, who once worked for Enron Corp, took home $1.5 billion. At 34, he is the youngest on the list. George Soros, the 78-year-old philanthropist, was the fourth best-paid manager, taking home $1.1 billion, the magazine reported.

On average, the take-home pay for the top earners was $464 million, down from $892 million in 2007.

The numbers prove that running a top performing hedge fund is still extremely lucrative. Industry statistics show that the average chief executive earned about $2 million.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)