Congress Scrambling to Avoid Government Shutdown

Historically, government shutdowns have not caused a major reaction in the markets. But shutdowns can increase market volatility, and an extended shutdown could have an impact on the overall economy.
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Facing a September 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown, the deeply divided Congress is struggling to find a path to passing a short-term funding measure to keep the government open and operating. A shutdown that begins on October 1 looks increasingly likely.

Government shutdowns have not historically produced significant market reactions. But an extended shutdown could have broader impact on the economy.

Here’s what investors need to know.

How did we get here?

Among the most basic responsibilities of Congress is funding federal government operations. Every year, lawmakers are supposed to pass the 12 appropriations bills that fund every government agency and program by September 30, in time for the start of the government’s fiscal year on October 1.

But their track record for doing so is terrible. The last time all 12 bills had passed Congress by the deadline was 1997.

That produces an annual end-of-September drama on Capitol Hill as Congress scrambles to pass a “continuing resolution,” a temporary extension of funding for a specific amount of time that keeps the government open and operating. A “CR” can last for a day or two, weeks or months. On three occasions in the last 20 years, the continuing resolution has lasted the entire fiscal year.

Without a continuing resolution, the government shuts down. The last shutdown lasted 35 days from late December 2018 to late January 2019—the longest shutdown ever.

Impact of a government shutdown

Each agency makes its own contingency plan for operating “essential” services during a government shutdown. Employees in key roles—air traffic controllers, border security agents, military personnel, the Postal Service and many more—would continue to work, though paychecks may be delayed. Non-essential services, however, will be paused. In the 2018-2019 shutdown, an estimated 850,000 federal workers were furloughed.

Treasury markets and the stock market would continue to operate normally during a shutdown, though Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Gary Gensler said in a September 20 interview that the agency’s “normal oversight … on markets will not be possible” during a shutdown because the SEC would have a “skeletal staff.”

Key economic data releases are likely to be delayed in a shutdown. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated earlier this week that it would “suspend data collection, processing and dissemination” if the government closes. That would likely impact the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), due to be released on October 3, as well as the October 6 nonfarm payrolls report. A longer shutdown could impact the release of producer price index (PPI) and consumer price index (CPI) data, scheduled for release on October 11 and 12, respectively. All of this data will be critical for the Federal Reserve as it assesses the state of the economy in advance of its next monetary policy meeting on October 31 and November 1.

The Internal Revenue Service would continue to operate because last year’s Inflation Reduction Act made additional funding available for the agency.

Non-essential government functions would stop during a shutdown. In past shutdowns, the closure of national parks and the Smithsonian museums has been among the most high-profile impacts. The processing of passport and Social Security applications would be suspended, though Social Security and other benefits would continue to be paid out.

Do markets care about government shutdowns?

Historically, government shutdowns have not caused a major reaction in the markets. In fact, the S&P 500® has risen during the last five government shutdowns.

But shutdowns can increase market volatility. In the 2018-2019 shutdown, the S&P 500 dropped by 2.7% on the first trading day after the shutdown, rebounded nearly 5% on the next trading day and was up more than 10% by the end of the 35-day shutdown.

An extended shutdown could have a modest impact on the overall economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2018-2019 shutdown cost the economy about $3 billion.

What to watch this week on Capitol Hill

With the shutdown deadline looming next weekend, the coming week will be critical on Capitol Hill. 

Earlier this month, the White House asked Congress to pass an extension of funding until November or December to allow for more time for negotiations. It also asked for billions in emergency aid for victims of recent disasters like the Hawaii wildfires and the hurricane in Florida to be added to the short-term agreement. More controversially, the White House requested $24 billion in additional aid to support Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.

While the Senate has been open to a bill that combines a short-term extension of funding with the disaster aid and Ukraine aid, that approach has been met with strong resistance in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a four-seat majority. Conservatives are pushing for significant overall spending cuts and some are questioning whether more aid for Ukraine is appropriate at this time. The result has been an intraparty stalemate among House Republicans that has stalled any action. Talks were ongoing as the weekend began.

But even if House Republicans were to coalesce in the coming week around a short-term solution, it’s unlikely that their approach would be able to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate or win the signature of President Joe Biden. That would create another back-and-forth between the two chambers, with no clear resolution in sight.

Just three months ago, Congress pulled a rabbit out of its hat and found a last-minute agreement on the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default. While it is possible that lawmakers could again reach a last-gasp deal and avoid an October 1 government shutdown, pessimism abounds in Washington and a shutdown is looking increasingly likely.



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