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Goldman Fears "Government Shutdown" Is Looming As Lew Urges Congress "Raise Debt Limit ASAP"

With Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sending a letter to Congress this evening demanding they raise the debt limit as soon as possible, warning that cash balances have dropped below the "minimum target," it is perhaps less than surprising that Goldman Sachs is warning that a government shutdown at the end of the month has become much more likely over the last several weeks. While out-months in VIX (beyond the prospective shutdown) remain elevated, Goldman finds a silver-lining claiming that the effect of a potential shutdown on financial markets and the real economy would probably be modest if it did occur. We shall see...


As Goldman explains...

  • While it is a close call, we still think it is slightly more likely that Congress will avoid a shutdown and pass spending legislation just before the current funding expires on September 30.
  • More importantly, while the risk of a shutdown is real and the outcome of the political debate is hard to predict, the effect of a potential shutdown on financial markets and the real economy would probably be modest if it did occur. Unlike 2013, a shutdown in October would be unrelated to raising the debt limit, and it would probably also be shorter in duration. If so, it would probably have little effect on output or personal income, though it could dent confidence.

A government shutdown at the end of the month has become much more likely over the last several weeks, in our view. Federal spending authority expires on September 30, and with little hope of resolving differences on full-year spending bills by then, Congress will need to pass a “continuing resolution” to avoid a lapse in funding that would result in a partial government shutdown.

While the parties have disagreed on 2016 spending levels for some time, a shutdown only recently emerged as a risk, mainly because the controversy surrounding whether to block funds to the Planned Parenthood organization has created the sort of binary issue that has caused or threatened to cause shutdowns in the past. Some Republicans want to use the upcoming spending bill to block the organization from receiving federal funds, while Democrats generally oppose such a move. Unlike budget disagreements, which can be settled by meeting halfway, these issues are harder to resolve because one side basically needs to give up on their position.

More generally, the political environment at the moment seems ripe for fiscal conflict. We are still closer to the last election than the next one, and it is not a coincidence that recent major fiscal disruptions occurred in 2011 and 2013—odd years—when upcoming elections were still more than a year off. In the 2013 experience, public sentiment toward Republicans dropped sharply during and after the shutdown (Gallup’s Republican favorability measure hit a 20-year low), but a year later Republicans won the majorities in the House and Senate. Some lawmakers may conclude from this that voters’ memories are short and the political price for a shutdown more than a year before the next election is low. Anti-establishment political sentiment is also running high; “outsider” candidates are performing surprisingly well in the contest for the Republican and, to a lesser extent, Democratic nomination, and efforts to remove House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) from his position as Speaker have resurfaced.

Ultimately, the outlook hinges on House Republican leaders. In the next week or two, the House looks likely to pass a continuing resolution that defunds Planned Parenthood. The Senate already considered legislation dealing with that topic and failed to muster 60 votes, suggesting that only a “clean” funding bill can pass there. As has been the case several times before, this will put House leaders in the position of accepting a “clean” bill that the Senate will eventually pass, thereby averting a shutdown, or insisting on their version, which the President would surely veto in any case.

There is more than one way that Congress could still avoid a shutdown at the end of the month. The most obvious option would be for House Republican leaders to bring “clean” spending legislation to a vote, with the expectation that it would pass with substantial Democratic support. To satisfy conservatives, the House could also vote on separate legislation to enact the specific policy changes some lawmakers are demanding, potentially via the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate and therefore would allow congressional Republicans to send such a bill to the President’s desk (it would nevertheless be vetoed, but the effort might be enough to satisfy House conservatives). A second option would be to split off the controversial issues from the funding for other agencies, limiting the scope of any potential shutdown, similar to the strategy used in late 2014 to extend spending authority in the face of Republican opposition to the President’s executive action on immigration. However, it seems unlikely that congressional Democrats would support such a move this time around.

So will a shutdown occur? With a few weeks to go until the deadline, the outlook is very murky but our best guess is that Congress will narrowly avoid it. While there are several considerations that make a shutdown possible, as noted above, support for the current effort is still fairly limited. Prior to the 2013 shutdown, for example, 80 House Republicans signed on to the effort to oppose spending legislation unless it blocked funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare). By contrast, only around 30 have signed on to the current effort, though that number may rise.

More importantly, while the probability of a shutdown of some kind seems to us to be approaching 50%, we think the probability of a shutdown that has a significant effect on the financial markets or real economy is much lower, for two reasons.

First, unlike the 2013 shutdown, which coincided with the deadline to raise the debt limit, the next deadline to raise the debt limit is unlikely to be reached until at least mid-November. As shown in Exhibit 1, shutdowns that overlapped with debt limit deadlines—the 1990 and 2013 shutdowns—have tended to result in a stronger reaction in financial markets than other shutdowns where the debt limit deadline was not about to be reached.

Exhibit 1: Shutdowns create volatility mainly when they overlap with a debt limit deadline

Source: Bloomberg, Congressional Research Service, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research

Second, a potential shutdown would probably be very short. In 2013, the shutdown ended up lasting longer than initially expected, in large part because the only natural deadline was the debt limit deadline, which was 2.5 weeks after funding lapsed. While one might argue that the lack of any deadline could lead to an even longer potential shutdown this year, it is more likely in our view that it would simply result in a decision to end the shutdown soon after it began, as has been the case with nearly every other government shutdown. In the 12 instances since 1980 that the federal government has shut down due to a funding lapse, the shutdown has lasted more than a week only twice. In 2013, we estimated that each week that all agencies were shut down would reduce real GDP growth in the quarter by around 0.2pp, though most of this effect would be reversed in the following quarter (after the first week, most civilian defense employees returned to work, reducing the economic effect of the final two weeks of what turned out to be a three-week shutdown).

It is too early to predict with any certainty whether a shutdown will occur, let alone how long it might last, but as the situation stands today, it seems likely to us that if a shutdown does occur it would have a smaller effect than the one in 2013.