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What Next?

With the federal government open again, there’s a little less uncertainty in the economy. Things are back to normal and everyone is happy again. Right?

Unfortunately, the effects of the record shutdown are still hard to predict. As with any economic data, we won’t know until the quarter is over just what happened. We do have a few clues, however, and a few things that we can watch to know just where it’s going.

It wasn’t this bad. That’s about all we know right now, however.

During the shutdown, there were more effects than the families of 800,000 employees. Many communities, particularly around military bases, have an entire economy which relies on contractors and other people who were being stiffed for a month. These effects ripple out through entire regions eventually, affecting everyone.

January is always a tough month for many reasons, including seasonal workers becoming unemployed after the holidays and construction shutting down for cold weather. There is a mini-recession every year, and that can be affected by a large slowdown in other areas. That is why the ripple effects could be significant.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that this total loss to the economy is about $11 billion, with $3 billion of it permanent. This is not a huge figure in an economy that runs about $4.3 trillion per quarter, but it is about 0.3% overall.

Taken with the 0.7% growth we expect every quarter, it’s not enough to tip us into a recession.

Goldman Sachs has predicted a strong economy through 2019, essentially more of the same as we move forward. They essentially see the same rate of growth continuing, meaning that while this is likely to hurt 1Q19 it’s probably not going to break it. But they also see other bad news on the horizon, particularly with regard to interest rates.

Reading between the lines is not all that hard.

We can reasonably expect the Fed Funds Rate to continue to climb this year, as there is indeed inflation. Combining that with the nearly insatiable appetite for debt by the federal government, temporarily paused during the shutdown, and we can see a more immediate problem.

The back pay for all those workers, and other contracts, is going to cause a wave of borrowing by the government. That will have to be satisfied primarily by short-term debt, at least in the early phases. It takes a lot longer to issue longer term bonds, according to the cycle, so in order to meet the obligations a schedule of short-term debt will be worked out this week to cover it.

That’s not good news as we continue to watch for the surest sign of a recession, an inverted yield curve. Right now, the net spread between two year treasury notes and ten year bonds is 0.16%, or 16 basis points. A large wave of short term borrowing could drop that substantially, and we’re not that far from zero to start with.

This is why stock markets, which had appeared to stabilize, are a bit spooked. They are looking for data to know how this is going to wash through the bond market.

This is the season for worry.

That leaves us with more uncertainly than anyone would like, even with the government reopening. This is far from over in terms of how it is all financed and played out. It’s worth noting that in three weeks we might do this all over again, if there isn’t an agreement.

What should we watch for during this time? The 10-2 spread is the best read of the yield curve inverting. If that goes negative, we will be looking at a recession. We also have to watch GDP estimates as they come in, some time in the next few weeks. There is also a chance that the job market might suddenly soften, so employment figures should be watched.

In short, it’s not over. There are a few things to keep an eye on as we see how this ripples out in waves through regional and eventually the national economy.

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2 thoughts on “What Next?

  1. I don’t know about a recession, but the consumer sentiment poll was very weak & I have heard that retail had a bad Christmas. Remember this all started before then. The economy may be strong but a lot is happening at once.

  2. I used to work as a bankruptcy attorney. Bankruptcy should be the last resort, but I see a lot of new potential cases opening up in the next year or two. A lot of federal workers live paycheck to paycheck – I hope this recent shutdown made that clear to everyone. And of course, we’re not out of the woods yet as far as shutdowns go, since the underlying conflict hasn’t been solved.

    As far as the economy goes, I hope things continue going well, but we all have to plan for the lean years.

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