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Government shutdowns, markets and you

Key takeaways

  • Many of the federal government’s activities are scheduled to shut down in the coming weeks if Congress can't pass resolutions to fund them.
  • Historically, the impact of government shutdowns on financial markets has been limited and short-lived.
  • A prolonged government shutdown could slow economic growth but is not likely to trigger a recession.
  • Investors should not overreact to news events and instead should stay focused on their long-term investing strategies.

During the 4 decades since David Byrne and Talking Heads wrote a song titled “Don’t Worry About the Government,” the federal government has developed a worrisome habit of repeatedly shutting down its services because Congress has failed to appropriate the money needed to keep them operating.

Since the first government shutdown, which lasted for 1 day in 1981, the federal government has been forced to close 10 times, including a 5-week-long shutdown in 2018. More recently, Congress has been relying since last year on a series of short-term, last-minute measures to avoid a shutdown with little adverse reaction from the economy, markets, or most anyone outside the beltway.

Government shutdowns. Chart showing that federal government shutdowns have historically had little impact on financial markets.
Source: US House of Representatives

Should you worry about the markets this time?

If there’s anything positive about this history of increasing fiscal dysfunction in Washington, it may be that it’s now gone on long enough to show that past shutdowns have had little impact on investors, consumers, or financial markets. “Even longer shutdowns such as the ones that took place in 2013 and 2018, which were disruptive and costly, did not move the stock market,” says Global Macro Strategist Jurrien Timmer.

Timmer’s belief that shutdowns are nonevents for stocks is based on analyzing historical data about the performance of the S&P 500 during the 100 days before and after the 2 longest shutdowns. In both cases, stocks rose strongly in the 100 days following the shutdowns of nonessential government services.

Timmer also points out that the 2018 shutdown took place when stocks were nearing the tail end of what he calls an “unrelated 20% drawdown” and began a strong rally while the government was still on hiatus.

Sources: FMR, Bloomberg

What this history shows is that market participants are able to understand that short-lived political drama does make headlines but does not have a meaningful impact on corporate earnings, which are the primary drivers of stock prices.

However, while stock markets may look past shutdowns, the credit rating firms who take a longer-term view of the government's fiscal well-being appear less willing to do so. Ratings agency Moody's has previously warned that the ongoing congressional drama could prompt it to eventually lower the federal government's credit rating. Such a move could raise borrowing costs for the government and potentially increase volatility in financial markets, perhaps long after any shutdown has ended.

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Should you worry about the economy?

While history shows that government shutdowns have had little long-term effect on stock prices—or on the size and functioning of the federal government—they do have a potential economic impact.

The federal government spends enormous amounts of money buying goods, providing services, and otherwise generating economic activity. A lengthy shutdown of even some of those activities could lower US economic activity by a measurable amount.

A cut of that size in economic activity may appear especially unwelcome now because the US economy is currently in the late phase of the business cycle, according to Fidelity’s Asset Allocation Research Team (AART). The late cycle is a time during which economic growth has historically slowed and which typically has ended with the economy slipping into recession.

Dirk Hofschire, head of AART, says a government shutdown would be a small drag on the economy but not a devastating blow that would create a recession by itself. "We've had a number of shutdowns over the past 30 years, and most of these periods experienced a relatively limited and temporary impact on overall economic growth," says Hofschire. "However, the longer a shutdown persists the greater the damage would be."

In addition to the obvious direct impact of hundreds of thousands of government workers and contractors not getting paid, the uncertainty around an open-ended shutdown threatens business and consumer confidence. If companies and consumers don't know when government services will be up and running, it becomes more difficult to make investment or spending plans.

Hofschire says even with a government shutdown, the near-term odds of a US recession remain low.

Should you worry about your investments?

While uncertainty about when the government might reopen generates worrisome headlines, the only thing most people have to fear from a shutdown is the temptation to overreact to those headlines and make personal financial decisions based on fear and uncertainty. If you already have an investment strategy built around your goals, financial situation, timeline, and risk tolerance, you likely don't need to make any changes in response to headlines.

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This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.

The views expressed are as of the date indicated and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments. The experts are not employed by Fidelity but may receive compensation from Fidelity for their services.

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