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US shutdown more 'sideshow' than market mover

Holly Black  |  21 Jan 2019Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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The US Government is now in the midst of the longest shutdown in history; the closure started just before Christmas, as debt negotiations reached an impasse.

Two of the major issues surrounding the shutdown are:

  • The Democrats' refusal to back Republican President Donald Trump's bid for a publicly-funded US$5 billion wall along the Mexican border
  • Around 800,000 federal workers remain unpaid as a result of the stalemate.

While this may be a seismic concern for those without a paycheck, experts say the shutdown itself is little more than a “sideshow”, and there are bigger issues to worry about. "The shutdown most directly affects Federal employees, but as time goes on it will have mildly negative implications for US domestic growth," says Jason Hollands, who heads Tileny Bestinvest, a UK-based financial advice firm.

The last major shutdown in 2013 shaved 0.1 per cent off GDP for every week it rumbled on. The US economy has enjoyed a period of expansion recently, so this should not prove too damaging – but even a buoyant economy will start to feel the impact in time.

Reasons to be wary

Far more pressing are the triple pressures of the ongoing trade war between the US and China, poor manufacturing data, and concerns about liquidity as the Fed continues to raise interest rates.

"The US Government shutdown is a sideshow and not hugely relevant. There are two major problems stalking global markets: the turn in the liquidity cycle and China’s economic issues," says Tom Becket, CIO at Psigma Investment Management.

Certainly, there has been one obvious example of China’s influence this month; Apple’s lowering of its revenue guidance after weak sales in the region. The news sent the share price into freefall.

There’s also another potential cloud on the horizon: at the start of March, the US Government debt ceiling will be reinstated. If this is not increased, the Treasury could be unable to raise funding through the bond markets and the US could technically default on its debt.

However, Graham Bishop, investment director at Heartwood Investment Management, says this is an unlikely scenario and he is more concerned about data coming out of China and the Fed’s interest rate hiking strategy.

A buying opportunity?

While a slowdown in US growth seems inevitable, Trevor Greetham, head of multi-asset at Royal London Asset Management, says investors would be wrong to assume this will lead to recession. He has been taking the opportunity to buy stocks at lower prices after the worst December on Wall Street since the midst of the Great Depression in 1931.

But Anthony Rayner, multi-asset fund manager at Miton, is cautious about the outlook and has lower than usual exposure to equities while increasing his exposure to gold and limiting the credit and duration risk he is taking in fixed income investments. He thinks liquidity is paramount at the moment, so he can react quickly and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

However, Rayner adds, markets seem to have largely priced in a slowdown so arguably unless there is a major shock this shouldn’t cause any nasty surprises. Becket adds: "If global corporate earnings surprise on the upside, then equity markets could also stage a more convincing and sustainable recovery from the falls last year."

Hollands is more positive, arguing: “The direct impact of the shutdown on the US stock market is marginal, largely because the market is dominated by enormous companies with global reach.”

He thinks the strength of the US dollar will be a more important influence on the direction of markets; a softening of the currency is a risk to investors with money in US and global funds. They will see the currency boost they have enjoyed in recent years eroded away if the dollar weakens, as their returns are worth less when converted back into their home currrency.

How has the market reacted?

So far, not a great deal. Since the shutdown began, the S&P 500 is up more than 10 per cent to 2,670, with a similar gain in the Dow Jones, which is now around 24,706. The average North America fund is down 2.7 per cent, but a handful of funds within the sector are in the black over that period.

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