Now that the government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship are over, the media has turned to playing the blame-game and diagnosing how badly the fiscal fights hurt the economy. On Wednesday, right before the McConnell-Reid deal passed both houses, S&P estimated that “the shutdown has shaved at least 0.6% off of annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth, or taken $24 billion out of the economy.”
This number, $24 billion, has been repeated around the internet as representing the cost of the shutdown, but that’s wrong for two reasons.
First, S&P is calculating how much the shutdown hurt the economy in the 4th quarter, but does not add in any bounce-back effects that will happen in the first quarter of next year. Many of the federal workers who were furloughed had to reduce their spending and it will continue to have an effect into November and December. But they will receive pay for their missed time; eventually that money will circulate into the economy. That doesn’t mean there were no negative economic effects to furloughing federal workers. Many workers in other sectors depend on those workers to purchase goods and services and those workers will not receive back pay. But that $24 billion is overstated as it does not included the bounce back effect. At the beginning of the crisis, Macroeconomic Advisors estimated that a the furloughs caused by a two-week shutdown would reduce real GDP by 0.3% in the 4th quarter. However, it noted that most of that should be made up in the first half of next year, as happened in the 1995-1996 government shutdown.
Second, the Federal Reserve may have delayed tapering to offset some of the negative impact of the shutdown. The September FOMC meeting outlined those fears:
However, a number of others (FOMC members) pointed to heightened uncertainty about the course of federal fiscal policy over coming months, including the potential for a government shutdown or strains related to the debt ceiling debate, which posed downside risks to the economic outlook.
In his press conference, Ben Bernanke repeatedly emphasized that the fiscal fights in Washington would be a drag on the economy. It’s unclear whether the Fed would have begun tapering in September if there was not a potential government shutdown and debt ceiling fight lurking in the near-future. It might have delayed reducing its bond purchases anyways as the economy slowed. However, investors are already predicting that the Fed will likely continue delaying tapering until at least the spring of next year since the federal government may go through these fights again in January. If that’s the case, then the Fed almost certainly kept its policy more accommodative due to the shutdown, which offsets some of that $24 billion in negative economic costs.
None of this is to say that the shutdown wasn’t costly. It was. It caused needless suffering for many Americans and certainly hurt the economy. But it’s unlikely to have cost the economy $24 billion. Keep that in mind.