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Friday, March 15, 2024

Fixed Price Versus Cost Plus in Federal Government Contracting

An interesting conversation with an astute, anonymous interviewer on Quora, replicated here for those who may be confused at times with regard to some of the nuances between fixed price and cost plus federal government contracting. 


Why are cost-plus-fee government contracts less profitable for defense companies than fixed cost contracts?

They are extremely low risk because the contractor is guaranteed reimbursement of any and all costs up to the funded ceiling on the contract.

Therefore under the guidelines for negotiation of profit based on risk, the profit range is always settled at a lower range than other types of contracts with higher risk factors. 


Thank you Ken. Is the government moving more towards cost-plus contracts and away from fixed cost contracts?

It depends on the type of effort involved.  Cost plus is generally in very advanced development arena, where the state of the art is being pressed, the requirements are nebulous and the design baseline is tough.

Higher profit production programs where the product or service is mature, predictable and repetitive are usually the recipients of firm fixed price contracts at higher profits.

It is common for the huge billions for services in the war zone for instance to be cost plus due to the unknown nature of warfare.  A similar program stateside at an air force base would lock them into fixed rates for several years but at a higher profit. 

Cost type contracts are generally pursued for cash flow, "Keep the lights on and bill every month" reasons, while higher profit programs are being pursued at the same time in the company


What about small UAVs / drones? Are those now mostly cost plus contracts?

During development the more complex ones are indeed.  Size in the services and the intelligence community does not necessarily equate to simplicity with micro technology, Satcom and sensors involved.

When they hit production on a repetitive basis they move to more fixed price oriented and incentive oriented higher profit contract types, which of course is the real goal of the companies involved.


I'm confused, I thought cost plus was for more established technology product and fixed price was for more complex technology product (because it allowed for higher returns)?

It is just the opposite.

Companies will not undertake advanced technology like the F-35 without a cost plus contract because of the risk in pressing the state of the art and meeting an enormously difficult specification.  A prototype is a one of a kind item. 

A production program has high volume potential and yields less risk at a higher profit rate overall at fixed prices.

Pentagon history is replete with incidents where companies went broke on new product development on a fixed price basis. At one point the FAR disallowed fixed price product development because of that issue.

The Lockheed Skunk works went broke years ago and had to be bailed out.  The Pentagon simply plussed up their cost plus contracts and the Black Bird was the result.

The F-35 cost plus contract was finally capped by the Air Force recently and a portion of the risk shifted to Lockheed due abuse of the cost plus contracting by Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Program Overruns

Companies seek a production program follow-on at a high volume and fixed prices with higher profit with lower risk to ultimately make the real bucks,  Under such an arrangement they also own the tooling.  Uncle Sam owns the tooling on a cost plus contract.

I'm still confused.  A company I know had high gross margins because they had more fixed price business in the last two years. For this year, they will have more cost plus and are guiding to lower margins. I thought they and more cost plus this year because they are doing more retrofitting as opposed to the original technology? I am ultimately trying to understand if this is a permanent shift in their Department of Defense business... but any clarification would help!

It is not surprising that gross margins go down when the cost plus base increases.  I have never seen it any other way in my 40 years in the aerospace industry.  Cost plus is low risk and low profit. 

In fact, on certain cost plus contracts there has been a regulated maximum ceiling on profit.

At the bottom line there is no shift in what you are observing.  It is simply the mix of business in the company driving a lower profit rate due to the low risk, hence lower profit, nature of the cost plus environment. 

If the mix were to change to a higher base of fixed price contracts (and higher risk) the opposite trend would occur.

Is there a reason why for the last three years they had more fixed contracts but now over a sudden the mix shifts to cost plus? Does that make sense?   So to understand - this can change every year? Is there any way to predict it based on the types of products they have going forward? Is it because they are retrofitting that its cost plus and not fixed?

Cost plus = high tech, high risk, difficult to meet the spec, full of unknowns and a specification that is moving around all the time until the product is base lined.

Fixed Price = mature product, prototyped and tested, probably through low rate initial production and now going high quantity for fielding.  Lower risk, company willing to commit to FFP; government comfortable the company will not go broke in doing so at a fixed price.

Rule of thumb - look at your product or service complexity and technical challenge  mix, not a government trend.

Check the above mix in the company, the mix in the market, the mix in the competition, the mix in the environment the product or service will  encounter.   Then assume cost plus for high risk, pressing the state of the art procurements and fixed price for lower risk mature products or experienced services.

Can a program start off as fixed price and then become cost plus? Or is it the opposite?
The opposite. A program generally moves from cost plus to fixed price as it matures.

The federal government generally recognizes 6 principal categories of  acquisitions. Below is an extract from the FAR for each.

It is possible  for a product to go through, or be supported by, all 6 acquisition  categories during its life cycle and many different contact types, depending on the nature of the work, the risk and the product.

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