Department of Employee Trust Funds  Hot Topic
February 3, 2004
Wondering About This Year's Retiree Dividend?
The Department of Employee Trust Funds (DETF) will soon announce
the annual fixed annuity dividend and variable annuity adjustment
paid to retirees of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS). In the
meantime, we’ll address some commonly asked questions from
retirees about fixed annuity adjustment calculations and how they
differ from rates credited to nonretired participant accounts.
Q. According to preliminary information from the State
of Wisconsin Investment Board (SWIB), the fixed trust fund earned
over 24% in 2003. However, DETF says there may not be a fixed annuity
increase this year. Why?
A. Under current law DETF cannot grant a fixed annuity increase
unless there is sufficient funding to grant all retirees a 2% increase.
Even though preliminary 2003 investment returns were 24%, the fixed
trust fund is still feeling the effects of investment losses from
three consecutive years of declining investment markets (2000, 2001,
and 2002). As a result, the preliminary investment returns of 24%
are still insufficient to generate a 2% fixed dividend.
However, proposed legislation still might make it possible
for the Department to pay a small fixed annuity increase in May.
Assembly Bill 692 and Senate Bill 344 call for lowering the 2% threshold
mentioned above to .5% (onehalf percent). Under these bills, if
the annual investment earnings are sufficient so that the Department’s
calculation process yields a fixed annuity increase of at least
.5%, the increase could be granted. If this legislation is enacted
in time, there will be a small fixed annuity increase (less than
2.0%) beginning with the May 1, 2004, annuity payment.
DETF supports these bills and is closely monitoring their status.
To monitor their status yourself, visit the Legislature’s
Internet site.
Q. Why are the annuity adjustments (fixed and variable)
always lower than the interest rates credited to nonretired participant
accounts? Don’t all monies in the trust fund reap the same
investment earnings?
A. The funds earn the same rate of return. The annuity adjustment
is always lower because 5% assumed interest earnings must first
be subtracted from the earnings actually credited to the annuity
reserves (fixed and variable). Here’s why: When you retire,
the Department calculates the amount of money that will be needed
to fund your retirement benefit for your projected lifetime. This
amount is based on an actuarial assumption that the fund will earn
5% every year. Next, the total amount needed to fund your annuity
for your lifetime is transferred to the annuity reserve, the fund
from which all monthly payments are paid. Consequently, only investment
earnings in excess of the 5% assumed earnings are available to provide
annuity increases. When investment earnings are less than the 5%
assumed rate, this deficiency must be “made up” before
money is available to provide annuity increases.
Q. Then why isn’t the fixed annuity adjustment rate
exactly 5% less than the fixed effective rate applied to nonretired
accounts?
A. Calculating annuity dividends is significantly more complex
than calculating the interest rates credited to the accounts of
nonretired members. The process involves factors that are only
applicable to annuities. One example: changes in mortality rates
for members. A dividend increase is calculated based on how much
money is in the annuity reserve as of December 31, as compared to
how much is needed to fund all of the benefits for the projected
lifetimes of all annuitants. A small increase in annuitants’
life expectancies (as occurred in the recent
threeyear actuarial study) means that the annuities are now
expected to be paid for a slightly longer period of time. This results
in needing more money to fund those annuities, which has the effect
of slightly reducing the annuity adjustment that can be granted.
Other factors include funds carried over from the previous year’s
calculation process; adjustments for reestablished accounts; and
lump sum payments to annuitants’ beneficiaries.
Q. The variable interest rate credited to participants’
accounts is fairly close to SWIB’s actual variable fund investment
earnings for the previous year. However, the fixed interest rate
is normally very different from SWIB’s actual fixed fund investment
earnings for the previous year. Why?
A. Variable fund gains and losses are fully distributed each year.
However, to maintain stability in annual contribution rates and
fixed interest crediting and fixed annuity adjustments, by law annual
fixed investment returns are “smoothed” over a fiveyear
period. One result of smoothing the fixed returns is that there
may be a fixed annuity increase after a year with fixed fund investment
losses. However, this generally also results in lower annuity increases
for the years in which the market performs well.
Due to the significant stock market losses during 2000, 2001 and
2002, the fixed fund actually lost money in each of those years.
However, because of the smoothing in the fixed fund investment returns,
the Department was able to grant fixed annuity increases in 2000
(5.7%) and 2001 (3.3%). Unfortunately, over time these losses must
still be applied to WRS fixed accounts and annuities. When calculating
the interest crediting and annuity adjustments calculation, DETF
will continue distributing the losses until they have been fully
recognized.
This has the effect of reducing fixed interest crediting and annuity
adjustments for five years after the last year in which a loss occurred.
Find out more about State of Wisconsin
Investment Board preliminary investment returns for 2003.
Fixed and variable fund percentages.
