Protecting the Ability to Provide Essential Public Services

eBlog

July 1, 2015

Is Puerto Rico at the Tipping Point? As Puerto Rico nears insolvency, the White House and key members of Congress, perhaps observing events in Greece, appear to recognize that any reorganization of the U.S. territory’s debt outside of the U.S. judicial system would be chaotic and prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, with Congress in recess, some of the island’s creditors are threatening they will continue to oppose any effort by Puerto Rico to have access to federal bankruptcy courts. Oppenheimer Funds, the largest holder of Puerto Rico debt among U.S. municipal bond funds, yesterday warned Puerto Rico it stands ready to defend the terms of the municipal bonds it holds, challenging Gov. Alejandro Padilla’s proposal to begin restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt and to postpone interest payments on outstanding Puerto Rican municipal bonds. Oppenheimer’s fierce denunciation came in the wake of Gov. Padilla’s proposal Monday to create a Working Group for the Economic Recovery of Puerto Rico, led by Chief of Staff Victor Suárez, Government Development Bank President Melba Acosta, Secretary of Justice César Miranda, and the Presidents of the Senate and House, Eduardo Bhatia and Jaime Perelló: with the group charged to develop a consensus on the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s public debt—or, as Gov. Padilla put it: “The ultimate goal is a negotiated moratorium with bondholders to postpone debt payments a number of years, so that the money can be invested here in Puerto Rico.” .That is, absent the kind of neutral referee created under the U.S. bankruptcy laws and courts, chaos could reign as Gov. Padilla seeks to restructure the island’s $73 billion debt to relieve its fiscal problems. Retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s 18 month municipal bankruptcy trial before approving its unprecedented plan of debt adjustment—a plan under which Detroit’s municipal bondholders took significant reductions—and who has been retained to assist Puerto Rico as it seeks to restructure its debts in a way that preserves the island’s abilities to provide essential public services, such as 9-1-1, water, street lights, etc. yesterday told Reuters it would be impractical to expect Puerto Rico to restructure its $72 billion of obligations outside the court system: “I just don’t think that an out-of-court negotiation process is feasible here…There are too many creditors, too many different kinds of creditors. They’re all over the place,” adding Puerto Rico will need access to federal bankruptcy courts for more than just its public agencies, which would be allowed under H.R. 870, a bill introduced by Rep. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress: “The commonwealth itself needs access to Chapter 9 relief as well…Puerto Rico is not a state. It’s not a sovereign in the same sense that Michigan or Pennsylvania or Illinois is. Congress has complete and plenary authority over it. Without violating any of our constitutional principles, it could grant the commonwealth that relief, if it chose.”

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has, to date, refused to take the bill up for consideration—especially in the face of a well-financed campaign by hedge funds lobbying against any Congressional action. Support from Congressional leaders for providing Puerto Rico access to U.S. bankruptcy began to build this week, however. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the third-highest ranking Democrat will sponsor a companion of H.R. 870. In addition, Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the White House, said that Congress should “take a look” at the bill. In addition, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) said the legislation should be voted on when the House of Representatives returns to work later this month.

The inaction in Congress follows rejection last year by a U.S. District Court of proposed Puerto Rican legislation which would have enabled Puerto Rico’s public corporations to file for federal bankruptcy protection: U.S. District Judge Francisco A. Besosa last February held that the proposed legislation, the Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, violated the U.S. Constitution in a suit brought in federal court by municipal bond funds affiliated with Franklin Resources Inc., Oppenheimer Rochester Funds, and Blue Mountain Capital Management—firms which had sued Puerto Rico, arguing the law was unconstitutional and that, if enacted, would have depressed the value of the $2 billion in Puerto Rico power utility municipal bonds they held. Puerto Rico has appealed.

Oppenheimer Funds, which has an estimated $4.5 billion exposure on municipal bonds on behalf of its clients according to Morningstar, claims it believes Puerto Rico could repay municipal bondholders even while providing essential services to its citizens and taking steps to revitalize the island’s economy, adding that it stands ready “to defend the previously agreed to terms in each and every bond indenture,”—and that it is “disheartened that Governor Padilla, in a public forum, has called for negotiations with other creditors, representing and including the millions of individual Americans that hold Puerto Rico municipal bonds.” Oppenheimer’s statement came in the wake of Gov. Padilla’s statement Monday that his goal was to come up with a negotiated moratorium with the territory’s municipal bondholders to postpone debt payments for a number of years. No doubt, the fierceness of Oppenheimer and other of the island’s municipal bondholder servicers is related to recognition that in the resolutions of plan of adjustment approvals granted by the U.S. Bankruptcy courts in the Stockton and Detroit cases, the respective cities’ municipal bondholders took very steep haircuts—an outcome that clearly affected Puerto Rican bonds yesterday, which fell sharply for the second consecutive day, with general obligation 8 percent bonds maturing in 2035 as low as $64.50 versus a low of $68.75 on Monday. A Moody’s chart reflects the significant cuts bondholders took in the Vallejo, Detroit, and Stockton chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies—as well as the reductions proposed in San Bernardino’s proposed plan of debt adjustment pending before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. Almost 10 percent of municipal bonds that traded Monday were Puerto Rico-related, according to Janney Capital Markets. A key part of the drop, no doubt, came from downgrades by S&P and Fitch, with S&P warning that a default, distressed exchange, or redemption of Puerto Rico’s debt within the next six months seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, S&P reported it expects Puerto Rico to make its scheduled payment today of $655 million on general obligation debt; while Puerto Rico’s public utility corporation, PREPA, which has a current estimated debt in the range of $9 billion, is in discussions with creditors with regard to its own $400 million payment due today. One gets an appreciation of how fiercely municipal bond funds have been opposing giving access to the federal courts by Puerto Rico or any of its 147 municipalities: U.S. open-ended municipal bond funds have $11 billion of Puerto Rico bonds and nearly 53 percent of such funds have exposure to the commonwealth—with the biggest exposure including Franklin Templeton, which already was thoroughly bloodied in the Stockton federally approved resolution to its emergence from municipal bankruptcy.

Gov. Padilla, earlier this week, in the wake of the release of the Puerto Rico “Way Forward” report, made clear the U.S. territory could not pay all of its debt, even if it took strong measures to cut spending and increase revenues: “All the measures we have taken in the last two years reflect our willingness to pay and, had we not taken them, we would not be in a position today to request restructuring…We have done all that was within our power, but, as the report makes clear, the next step must be to ensure more favorable terms for the repayment of our debt.” That same day, the redoubtable Natalie Cohen of Wells Fargo Securities noted: “I agree that Puerto Rico’s current trajectory is unsustainable and lack of immediate action will only make its situation more painful to resolve. I thought the report was balanced and shows that without action, there is a financing gap of $3.7 billion in 2016, growing substantially in future years as Affordable Care Act reductions and loss of Act 154 benefits disappear (about 20% of General Fund revenues).”

  • According to Gov. Padilla, the Working Group formed this week will create a long-term fiscal agenda by Aug. 30 aimed at:
    • Establishing the parameters for a five-year fiscal plan; proposing additional cuts in spending — including cuts in some services — to avoid an increase in taxes; * *Restructuring the Department of Treasury to increase the efficiency of income gathering;
  • promoting alliances with the private sector to provide some of the services that are today provided by the public sector, such as the successful projects like the Moscoso Bridge, the airport, and the highway to Arecibo;
  • radically changing the way in which we work with government finances and economic statistics, to establish greater transparency and credibility;
  • guaranteeing our citizens’ essential services and our pensioners a just income; [and] creating a fiscal board which, outside political considerations, will guarantee the continuity and honor of the commitments agreed upon by us during the restructuring process.
  • Seeking passage in Washington of Chapter 9 eligibility for Puerto Rico’s public corporations, a more equitable distribution of Medicare payments, and the end of the Jones Act, which increases costs of shipping to and from the island.

Retirees v. Municipal Bondholders. The incredible Boston Federal Reserve report, “Walking a Tightrope: Are U.S. State & Local Governments on a Fiscally Sustainable Path?” by Bo Shao and David Coyne came as increasing data makes clear that municipalities have never recovered in terms of employees from pre-recession levels—so there are fewer employees paying into municipal pensions—even as retirees appear to have the gall to live much longer than any previous generations: the teeter-totter is fiscally teetering. Thus, when Chicago Public School system, last week, announced it intended to issue some $1 billion in new debt to finance its $600 million-plus pension payment due yesterday; it created still another battlefront between firms like Oppenheimer and states and municipalities. It also appears to have been a key factor in Moody’s sharp downgrade of the Windy City’s credit rating—a downgrade Moody’s attributed almost entirely to Chicago’s pension issues—adding to apprehensions that should the Illinois legislature grant Chicago and other Illinois municipalities access to municipal bankruptcy, the municipalities’ constitutional and political inabilities to reign in pension liabilities could trigger future U.S. Bankruptcy court decisions that, as in Puerto Rico, would have signal repercussions for municipal bondholders. . In the bankruptcies of Detroit, Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino, bondholders have faced losses of up to 99% of their holdings, according to a Moody’s report dated May 18. Meanwhile all three California cities chose to preserve full pensions for their employees, while Detroit only cut pensions by approximately 18%.

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