What Does a Government Shutdown Mean for Stocks?

A federal government shutdown doesn't necessarily spell doom for stocks.

government shutdown stocks
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Federal government shutdowns aren't necessarily all that bearish for stocks, at least historically speaking.

Although the market hates the threat of a federal government shutdown – an outcome that looks increasingly likely beginning November 17 – the S&P 500's performance during actual shutdowns has been pretty good. 

If our current go-round with a shutdown seems particularly unwelcome, it's probably because of its especially poor timing. The remarkable rally of 2023 has finally regained momentum after a rough couple of months. Mounting anxieties over interest rates, bond yields and oil prices, to name just three, caused the broader market to shed 2.2% in October alone. 

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November, however, has been another story entirely, with the S&P 500 jumping more than 5% for the month-to-date through November 9. 

Throwing a potential government shutdown into the mix when markets are rallying during a seasonally strong month of the year for equities is less than ideal. After all, stocks are back on track for a fourth-quarter push. A government shutdown would only mess with success. 

Stock performance during government shutdowns

Happily, for market participants, the historical record for stocks when the federal government shuts down is far from one of doom and gloom. 

There have been 21 government shutdowns since 1976, but on only four occasions were operations affected for more than one business day, writes Jeffrey Buchbinder, chief equity strategist at LPL Financial. That leaves us with only four "true" shutdowns, Buchbinder notes, the last occurring in late 2018 into early 2019. 

It's tough to remember now, but the S&P 500 returned 10.3% during the 35-day shutdown of 2018-2019. Stocks did fine during the extended shutdown of October 2013 too.

"Historically, markets were not materially impacted by a shutdown," Buchbinder says. "For example, in 2013, the House and Senate were in a standoff over funding for the so-called Affordable Care Act and the government was shut down for 16 days during the first part of October. The S&P 500 had some down days but overall, the equity market took all the political drama in stride with a 3.1% advance during those 16 days."

It's sort of counterintuitive, but during the 21 government shutdowns, the S&P 500 rose 55% of the time, generating an average return of 0.3%, according to data from Carson Group. Even better, 12 months after the end of the shutdown, the S&P 500 was higher 86% of the time, with an average return of 12.7%. 

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but the record for stocks in government shutdowns is almost encouraging. When the last federal government shutdown ended in 2019, the S&P 500 went on to return almost 24% over the next 12 months. There are probably plenty of market participants who would take that deal again. 

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Dan Burrows
Senior Investing Writer, Kiplinger.com

Dan Burrows is Kiplinger's senior investing writer, having joined the august publication full time in 2016.

A long-time financial journalist, Dan is a veteran of SmartMoney, MarketWatch, CBS MoneyWatch, InvestorPlace and DailyFinance. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Consumer Reports, Senior Executive and Boston magazine, and his stories have appeared in the New York Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News and Investor's Business Daily, among other publications. As a senior writer at AOL's DailyFinance, Dan reported market news from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and hosted a weekly video segment on equities.

Once upon a time – before his days as a financial reporter and assistant financial editor at legendary fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily – Dan worked for Spy magazine, scribbled away at Time Inc. and contributed to Maxim magazine back when lad mags were a thing. He's also written for Esquire magazine's Dubious Achievements Awards.

In his current role at Kiplinger, Dan writes about equities, fixed income, currencies, commodities, funds, macroeconomics, demographics, real estate, cost of living indexes and more.

Dan holds a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College and a master's degree from Columbia University.

Disclosure: Dan does not trade stocks or other securities. Rather, he dollar-cost averages into cheap funds and index funds and holds them forever in tax-advantaged accounts.