Would a Government Shutdown Matter to Markets?

Sep 13, 2023

A U.S. government shutdown looks increasingly likely. Here are the answers to investors’ top three questions.

Monica Guerra

Key Takeaways

  • A potential U.S. government shutdown may cause only modest losses in economic output, based on historical analysis.
  • Fixed-income volatility could increase, but given today’s high yields, U.S. government bonds remain attractive.
  • Equity investors may want to consider opportunities in the defense and healthcare sectors, which could rally during a shutdown. 

It looks increasingly likely that the U.S. government is headed for a shutdown on Oct. 1. To avert this outcome, Congress would have to pass 12 separate bills to fund federal agencies by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. However, lawmakers remain at odds over a host of issues, including proposals for new reductions in spending, the restoration of expired cuts to corporate taxes and an expansion of the child tax credit.

The Biden Administration has asked Congress to pass a “continuing resolution” that would temporarily keep government operations running at the same level as the previous fiscal year. However, if a shutdown ultimately comes to pass, it could mean furloughs for federal employees and disruptions to food or childcare assistance programs.


Coming on the heels of a closely watched debt-ceiling standoff, will continued government brinkmanship rattle the economy and markets? Here’s what investors are asking.

The 20 government shutdowns that have occurred since 1976 appear to have had limited impact on the economy.
How could a government shutdown impact the U.S. economy?

A government shutdown may cause only modest losses in gross domestic product (GDP). During the last shutdown, in 2018-2019, an estimated 800,000 federal workers went without pay for over a month. However, GDP fell just $3 billion (equivalent to 0.014% of 2018 GDP) the following quarter, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Looking back, the 20 government shutdowns that have occurred since 1976 appear to have had limited impact on the economy, with inflation-adjusted, or “real,” GDP still growing an average 2.2% during shutdowns.1

While investors may worry about financial and economic uncertainty, it’s key to note that government shutdowns are temporary – on average, they have lasted just over a week. Furthermore, government agencies and staff are made whole for the missed revenue as soon as a federal budget is approved. This relatively short timeline, along with eventual back pay, weakens broader economic impacts.

How could a government shutdown affect U.S. Treasury bonds?

A shutdown could cause some temporary instability in bond prices, although such turbulence isn’t a given. The MOVE Index, which measures bond market volatility, rose 3.8% during the shutdown in 1990 and 7.2% in the 1995-1996 shutdown. However, the volatility gauge fell 12.6% and 14.8% during the shutdowns in 2013 and 2018-2019, respectively.

Given today’s high yields, Morgan Stanley’s Global Investment Office thinks U.S. Treasuries remain attractive and would encourage investors sensitive to the risks of a shutdown to opt for increased Treasury exposure. On average, during shutdowns since 1976, the 10-year Treasury yield has fallen 0.59% while its price has ticked up, suggesting that investors favor the safe-haven asset during these periods of uncertainty. What’s more, the government can still pay bondholders during shutdowns, so coupon payments would not be at risk.

Investors may want to look for opportunities in the defense and healthcare sectors.
How can equity investors prepare for a government shutdown?

Historically, government shutdowns have had minimal negative impact on the U.S. stock market, with the S&P 500 Index gaining an average 4.4% during such events, likely due to other macroeconomic factors at play.

Investors may want to look for opportunities in the defense and healthcare sectors, which are highly dependent on government contracts. With those sectors currently underperforming the S&P 500, the prospect of a shutdown may present an attractive buying opportunity today. During shutdowns since 1995, the defense sector gained 5.2% and the traditionally defensive healthcare sector advanced 2.3%, compared with the S&P 500’s 3% return. Beyond the risk of a shutdown, other factors also contribute to this view: In the longer term, government spending and incentives could boost both sectors. For example, ongoing geopolitical tensions are likely to spur additional government-funded investments in defense and cybersecurity, while pharmaceutical and healthcare providers appear poised to benefit from the Affordable Care Act’s expansion and federal support of Medicare.  

Find out more in Morgan Stanley Wealth Management’s report “US Policy Pulse: Do Government Shutdowns Matter to Markets?” Connect with your Morgan Stanley Financial Advisor to request a copy and discuss how you may want to position your portfolio for a potential shutdown. 

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