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Danielle DiMartino Booth

Pension Crisis Too Big for Markets to Ignore

As was the case with the subprime mortgage crisis, the writing appears to be on the wall.
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In late 2006, Aaron Krowne, a computer scientist and mathematician, started a website that documented the real-time destruction of the subprime mortgage lending industry. The Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter caught on like wildfire with financial market voyeurs, regularly reaching 100,000 visitors. West Coast lenders, some may recall, were the first to fall in what eventually totaled 388 casualties.

A year earlier, to much less fanfare, Jack Dean launched another website in anticipation of the different kind of wave washing up on the California coastline. Called the Pension Tsunami, the website was originally conceived to provide Golden State taxpayers with a one-stop resource to track news stories on the state’s mammoth and numerous underfunded public pensions.

Dean came about his inspiration honestly: “I started tracking this issue in 2004 after the Orange County Board of Supervisors gave a retroactive pension formula increase of 62 percent to county employees,” he said. “I was stunned. It’s the main reason Orange County has a $4.5 billion underfunded liability today.”

As the years have passed, though, the site has become a font of information for states and municipalities nationwide as well as corporate pensions. In all, over 40,000 headlines have been posted to the website to date. On a recent Friday, Dean posted multiple stories on the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the country’s largest pension program, as well as a budget cliff facing San Francisco, six Los Angeles public safety officers who collected over $1 million apiece last year in pensions, and eight cities that could face bankruptcy when the next recession hits. But the day’s headlines also included the latest on the fiasco unfolding in Dallas, an update on Houston’s less awful situation and features on states that have become the site's other usual suspects -- Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey. And that was  a slow news day.

The question is why haven’t the headlines presaged pension implosions? As was the case with the subprime crisis, the writing appears to be on the wall. And yet calamity has yet to strike. How so? Call it the triumvirate of conspirators – the actuaries, accountants and their accomplices in office. Throw in the law of big numbers, very big numbers, and you get to a disaster in a seemingly permanent state of making. Unfunded pension obligations have risen to $1.9 trillion from $292 billion since 2007.