Update on the US Shutdown by BT Chief Economist Chris Caton

The US government shutdown has entered its second week. This is not as dire as it sounds. Firstly, only the 36% of Federal spending classified as “discretionary” is affected; Social Security payments, for example, continue to be made. Secondly, while there hasn’t been a shutdown since the halcyon days of Bill Clinton in 1996, before that they were quite a common occurrence.

The table below shows that there were 17 such shutdowns between 1976 and 1996. The median length was 3 days, with the longest being the 1995-96 event (21 days). Those that began on 30 September, as this one did, had a median length of 11 days. In each case, life as we know it eventually resumed.


History and duration of US Government shutdowns:



Number of Days

September 30 – October 11, 1976


September 30 – October 13, 1977


October 31 – November 9, 1977


November 30 – December 9, 1977


September 30 – October 18, 1978


September 30 – October 12, 1979


November 20 – November 23, 1981


September 30 – October 2, 1982


December 17 – December 21, 1982


November 10 – November 14, 1983


September 30 – October 3, 1984


October 3 – October 5, 1984


October 16 – October 18, 1986


December 18 – December 20, 1987


October 5 – October 9, 1990


November 13 – November 19, 1995


December 5, 1995 – January 6, 1996


Source:  RenMac


The current shutdown came about because US Congress did not pass a “continuing resolution” to enable the Government to continue to spend when the new fiscal year began on 1 October, 2013. The main reason why Congress failed to do this is because the far right faction of the Republican  Party (frequently referred to as the Tea Party) is seeking to stop the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which makes health insurance compulsory for most Americans, while ensuring that everyone can get coverage.

The economic effects of the shutdown are not huge; it is estimated that every week that it lasts will shave about 0.1 percentage point of Q4 GDP growth.

It now appears that the length of this shutdown will exceed the 11 day historical median. The reason is that the issue is about to be enjoined with another far more serious one; the raising of the US debt ceiling. This is something that needs to be done periodically so long as the Federal Budget is in deficit. Some will recall the share market chaos, and the downgrading of US Government debt by at least one ratings agency when the ceiling had to be raised in August 2011.

Raising the debt ceiling should be a simple accounting exercise; instead it tends to become a game of fiscal chicken between the Republicans and the Democrats. Given the intransigence that caused the shutdown, many fear that the debt ceiling negotiations will stall and the Government will literally run out of money, sometime soon after 17 October. A subsequent debt default by the US government would have untold negative consequences in global financial markets. The US Treasury has suggested that it would lead to a crisis as bad as 2008, and that the effects would be felt for a generation.

The fact that the outcome of a default would be so pernicious is, of course, the biggest single reason why things are unlikely to get that far. But someone has to blink. 

For as long as this remains an issue, markets will be volatile. But resolution should lead to a strong pickup as uncertainty is removed.