Friday, September 14, 2012

August Update: Early Look at 2013 Cost-Of-Living Adjustments indicates 1.4% increase

by Bill McBride on 9/14/2012 02:50:00 PM

The BLS reported this morning: "The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) increased 1.7 percent over the last 12 months to an index level of 227.056 (1982-84=100). For the month, the index increased 0.7 percent prior to seasonal adjustment."

CPI-W is the index that is used to calculate the Cost-Of-Living Adjustments (COLA). Here is an explanation ...

The calculation dates have changed over time (see Cost-of-Living Adjustments), but the current calculation uses the average CPI-W1 for the three months in Q3 (July, August, September) and compares to the average for the highest previous average of Q3 months. Note: this is not the headline CPI-U, and not seasonally adjusted.

SPECIAL NOTE on CPI-chained: There has been some discussion of switching from CPI-W to CPI-chained for COLA. This will not happen this year, but could happen next year and impact future Cost-of-living adjustments, see: Cost of Living and CPI-Chained

Since the highest Q3 average was last year (2011), at 223.233, we only have to compare to last year. Note: The last few years we needed to compare to Q3 2008 since that was the previous highest Q3 average.

CPI-W and COLA Adjustment Click on graph for larger image.

This graph shows CPI-W since January 2000. The red lines are the Q3 average of CPI-W for each year.

Currently CPI-W is above the Q3 2011 average. If the current level holds, COLA would be around 1.4% for next year (the current 226.312 average divided by the Q3 2011 level of 223.233). With the recent increases in oil and gasoline prices, CPI COLA might be closer to 1.6% once the September data is released.

This is early - we need the data for September - but COLA will be slightly positive next year.

Contribution and Benefit Base

The law prohibits an increase in the contribution and benefit base if COLA is not greater than zero. However if the there is even a small increase in COLA, the contribution base will be adjusted using the National Average Wage Index.

From Social Security: Cost-of-Living Adjustment Must Be Greater Than Zero

... ... any amount that is directly dependent for its value on the COLA would not increase. For example, the maximum Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment amounts would not increase if there were no COLA.

... if there were no COLA, section 230(a) of the Social Security Act prohibits an increase in the contribution and benefit base (Social Security's maximum taxable earnings), which normally increases with increases in the national average wage index. Similarly, the retirement test exempt amounts would not increase ...
This is based on a one year lag. The National Average Wage Index is not available for 2011 yet, but wages probably didn't increase much from 2010. If wages increased the same as last year, and COLA is positive (seems likely right now), then the contribution base next year will be increased to around $112,500 from the current $110,100.

Remember - this is an early look. What matters is average CPI-W for all three months in Q3 (July, August and September).

(1) CPI-W usually tracks CPI-U (headline number) pretty well. From the BLS:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes CPIs for two population groups: (1)the CPI for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which covers households of wage earners and clerical workers that comprise approximately 32 percent of the total population and (2) the CPI for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) ... which cover approximately 87 percent of the total population and include in addition to wage earners and clerical worker households, groups such as professional, managerial, and technical workers, the self- employed, short-term workers, the unemployed, and retirees and others not in the labor force.

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