October 15, 2015
Stanford project offers insights on unfunded public pension liabilities in California
Stanford researcher Joe Nation's new project offers a wealth of information about unfunded pension liabilities in California's cities, counties and special districts.
By Clifton B. Parker
A new Stanford project makes available online California county, city and special district pension data. (Photo: designer491/Shutterstock
California residents and the media may find the information on PensionTracker.org highly useful in seeking to understand the pension situation throughout the state, a Stanford researcher says.
"This is the first and only site to provide county, city and special district pension data for California," said Joe Nation, a Stanford public policy professor and researcher at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
The estimated total amount of unfunded liabilities in pensions in California in 2013 (the last year data are available) is $946.4 billion, which translates to nearly $75,000 per California household, according to PensionTracker.org.
Website users can filter by county, city and special district. The site contains roughly 2 million data points, using actuarial, budgetary, demographic and other financial information from a number of sources, including CalPERS, 63 independent pension systems, the State Controller's Office, the State Treasurer's Office, the California Department of Finance and the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
PensionTracker.org does not provide information on the California State Teachers' Retirement System, the University of California Retirement System or some agencies managed by independent systems, Nation noted.
"Most people will be surprised that the poor financial position of CalPERS and independent pension systems across California have not improved, despite the surging stock market," Nation said. "That shows how far we still have to overcome these enormous funding shortfalls."
The data – which cover 2008 to 2013 – include assets, liabilities, funded ratios, contributions, benefit levels, average salaries and pensions, agency demographics and retired-to-active ratios, among other issues. Data for 2014 and 2015 will soon be added to PensionTracker.org, Nation said.
PensionTracker.org merges data from multiple sources to provide 20 metrics for viewing, such as unfunded liability per household, he explained. The site also includes "Top 10" lists to show agencies in the worst positions. For example, the city of Irwindale has the highest unfunded liabilities per household, at $134,907.
The site also offers links to academic research on pensions, a discussion board, information about its methodology and a glossary.
Along with Nation, contributors to the project include John Shoven, the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics at Stanford; William F. Sharpe, the STANCO 25 Professor of Finance, Emeritus, at Stanford Graduate School of Business; Brian Kooiman, a graduate student in public policy at Stanford; and Nick Pataki, a data scientist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For more Stanford experts in public policy and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.