What shutdowns can mean for investors

A shutdown might cause volatility, but won't necessarily lead to a major market move.

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Key takeaways

  • The federal government briefly shut down as legislators and the administration negotiated an agreement to fund operations.
  • The agreement authorizes government spending until February 8, when another shutdown is possible.
  • Historically, the impact of shutdowns on markets has been fairly short-lived.
  • Investors should focus on their strategies and not overreact to individual events in the markets.

After a strong start for stocks in 2018, Washington has given investors one cause for concern: a government shutdown.

After a brief shutdown from January 19-22, Congress passed legislation to fund government operations until February 8, buying more time to negotiate a long-term agreement. However, if no deal is struck, in a few weeks legislators could find themselves facing similar options: Negotiate a long-term spending package, authorize another short-term funding solution, or shut the government down once again.

A couple of other deadlines could play a role in the negotiations. In mid-March, the United States will need to raise the debt limit, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has called on Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling. Also in March, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program expires—so immigration could again become part of the negotiations on spending.

"We believe Congress will find a path forward, but the timing remains uncertain and a prolonged debate over spending and other policy issues could create market uncertainty," says Alice Joe, vice president in Fidelity Government Relations.

The recent shutdown and possibility of another round of political uncertainty coming in a few weeks may create stress for investors who are trying to understand the impact on the economy and the markets. If you have a sound financial plan, you probably don't need to take action. Instead, make sure your strategy is still in line with your goals, finances, risk tolerance, and timeline. That said, if you have not rebalanced or given your portfolio a review for some time, now may be a good time to make sure your risk level and portfolio holdings are in line with your long-term plans. (Read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: Are you ready for a correction?)

More active investors may want to look at strategies or investments that benefit from increased volatility or use the market-moving event to revisit their holdings. (Visit Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: Active Investor for details.)

What a shutdown may mean for the economy and markets

What have shutdowns meant historically? From an investment perspective, a government shutdown has 2 immediate impacts. First, economically it hurts activity levels as most federal employees cannot work during the shutdown, government approvals are on hold, and other processes are held up. The federal Office of Management and Budget reported that the 2013 government shutdown was estimated to slow economic growth from 0.4% to 0.6% for the fourth quarter of that year.

In addition, a shutdown can weigh on many investors psychologically, as they question the likely impact on the economy and financial markets. During recent government standoffs, the debt ceiling fight of 2011 and the 2013 shutdown, US equity volatility, as measured by the VIX (the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index), increased significantly.

"We've been through government shutdowns before, and while disruptive they haven't generally had a major impact on macroeconomic trends or financial markets," says Dirk Hofschire, senior vice president on Fidelity's asset allocation research team. "It could be a negative for investor sentiment, but a shutdown by itself is not likely to be a catalyst for a major market reaction. The thing to watch would be how long the government shutdown persists: The longer it goes on, the more disruptive it will become to sentiment—business and consumer confidence. And that has the potential to replace the good news of tax cuts with the negative narrative of dysfunctional government."

Looking deeper at those 2 recent examples of government standoffs shows how short-lived those market impacts may be. Both caused market volatility to spike temporarily, and stock prices to dip. At the same time, Treasuries rallied, as investors sought relatively conservative options. However, in both cases, within a few months volatility had dissipated, and stocks had recovered to the pre-event levels.

Hofschire notes that if a deal is eventually struck to increase government spending, that could boost economic activity, and put more pressure on the Fed to raise rates.

The bottom line

When major events happen in Washington or elsewhere, it can cause markets to become volatile. That can be stressful, but it shouldn't change your investment strategies. Reacting emotionally can make it harder to reach your goals. Here is what you should consider doing instead:

  • Reevaluate your investing strategy at least annually or in the wake of any major life events, to make sure your investment mix is still in line with your goals, situation, and attitudes about investment risk.
  • If your portfolio has strayed from your plan, consider rebalancing your asset mix to stay in line with your strategy.
  • Review your portfolio to make sure your individual investments are still appropriate.

Next steps to consider

Research Fidelity's managed accounts.

Explore ways to reach your goals.

Make sure your portfolio is in line with your plans.

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