Investing in the face of a U.S. shutdown

It looks like the United States federal government may well shut down tomorrow. And in another two weeks, the U.S. Treasury could run out of cash unless Congress raises the debt ceiling.

I dug through some newspapers to see what people are saying about this stuff.

“Pressure grew on Republicans to accept an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling yesterday when a major Wall Street rating firm threatened to downgrade U.S. government securities,” read one article.

“We need to know what options are available to avoid default,” remarked a worried congressman.

“The Treasury Department said it was [its] ‘duty and intention to take all legal steps necessary to assure that the nation’s financial obligations — obligations already approved by Congress — are honored,'” wrote The New York Times.

“Default would produce global economic and financial crisis of major proportions,” warned the Treasury Secretary.

What’s interesting about these quotes? They’re all from 1995.

Déjà vu… all over again

Yes, we’ve been here before. The government shut down in late 1995 and early 1996 for 28 days. President Clinton and then House speaker Newt Gingrich finally agreed on a budget deal, and life went on.

The 1995 shutdown can be seen as silly. Maybe offensive. But for investors, there’s one thing it wasn’t: meaningful.

The S&P 500 barely budged during the 1995 shutdown. More importantly, the shutdown didn’t have a measurable impact on long-term businesses. If you’re an investor, that’s really all you should care about.

While some people talk…

As pundits talk about the looming damage of a government shutdown, keep this in mind: In the summer of 1995, Jeff Bezos sold his first book out of his garage for a fledgling start-up he called If you ever get the chance, ask Bezos how much attention he was paying to the government shutdown in 1995. He’ll laugh at you.

Also right in the middle of the 1995 government shutdown, two Stanford students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin met on campus. They started working on a search-engine technology called BackRub. It later became Google. Ask them how much they were paying attention to the government shutdown at the time.

If you’re a U.S. government employee, a shutdown has a real impact on you and your family. But if you’re an investor watching from the outside, this stuff should have virtually no impact on how you invest or think about the economy.

Foolish takeaway

I guarantee you this: Somewhere right now, there’s a 19-year-old kid at Stanford or MIT, or in his parents’ basement somewhere in suburban Australia, tinkering with spare parts or designing a new technology. Ten years from now, that kid will be a billionaire who changed the world. There’s also a pundit sitting in a studio forecasting doom. No one will remember what he said next week.

You get to choose who you want to pay attention to. Choose carefully.

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More reading

A version of this article, written by Morgan Housel, originally appeared on

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