How Is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) Used in Market Escalation Contracts?

Adding a Yearly Increase Clause in Contracts With CPI

Escalation clauses are often used to facilitate the creation of long-term contracts as wages or prices fluctuate over time. In these negotiations, the consumer price index (CPI) is one of the most frequently used measurements for applying an escalation clause.

Typically, sellers are hesitant to lock in a set price on a long-term contract for fear of losing the benefit of possible market appreciation in the value of their goods or services. In addition, changes that may occur over time due to inflation or other economic factors could also create a benefit for the seller to keep pricing changes open.

On the flip side, however, it is often convenient for buyers to be able to secure long-term agreements on pricing, either to ensure a steady supply or to be able to budget for long-term expenditures. To meet in the middle, a solution that is usually agreeable to both parties involves including an escalation clause that periodically adjusts the contract price in accord with an agreed-upon indicator of market price changes. The CPI is such an indicator; it is widely accepted as providing a reasonably accurate reflection of price changes due to inflation.

The consumer price index (CPI) is useful for both sellers and buyers to agree on incremental changes in negotiating the price for a long-term contract.

Escalation clauses are applied to contracts for rental property, labor, insurance, court-ordered support payments, and a myriad of contracts for goods and services. One well-known economic area in which the CPI is used for escalation includes government benefits provided to eligible individuals. For example, the CPI provides the basis for the annual cost of living increases for recipients of Social Security benefits. The CPI is not a direct cost-of-living indicator; it is merely a price survey of a broad basket of consumer staples, but it is still utilized to estimate any cost of living changes.

Considerations in Implementing the CPI

When implementing an escalation clause modifier such as the CPI, the contract must precisely define how periodic adjustments are made to the contract and the figure that the adjustment is applied to.

For example, in a rental contract, the adjustment may be made solely to the base rent amount or it may be applied to a larger figure that includes other secondary items such as utilities or maintenance services.

The particular variation of the CPI to be employed must also be specified. In fact, the government computes variations of the CPI for different areas of the country in addition to the standard overall CPI calculation. This standard calculation is known as the CPI-U, which purports to show the average CPI for urban workers in all U.S. cities.

The contract necessarily states how often adjustments are to be made or considered. Escalation adjustments most commonly occur on an annual basis, but they may be applied more or less frequently according to whatever agreement the parties to the contract reach. When using the CPI as an escalation modifier, the different variations of the CPI are not all provided with equal frequency. Indexes for some of the U.S. metropolitan areas are only published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics semi-annually and therefore are not appropriate for contract situations in which the parties wish to make inflation-related price adjustments every month.

The specific formula for adjustment is also stated in the contract. Commonly, the price adjustment made is a percentage equal to the percent change of the CPI, but a contract may stipulate using a multiplier that results in a greater or lesser adjustment than the change in the CPI number. Some contracts additionally stipulate a maximum total price increase or guarantee a periodic minimum increase.

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