Municipal Default & Consequences

August 6, 2015

Default & Its Consequences. Puerto Rico is in uncharted fiscal and physical territory in the wake of its default, and now faces a severe physical and fiscal drought. Lacking the protections to ensure the ability to provide essential public services under municipal bankruptcy, the drought threatens to syphon off already insufficient resources—almost certainly forcing further defaults—a fiscal situation which will make the island’s cost of borrowing increasingly prohibitive. Put another way, further credit downgrades could pose a serious challenge to Puerto Rico’s post-crisis recovery. With nearly 13 percent of the island under an extreme drought, the U.S. territory’s public utility will be providing water only every third day, raising the total facing 48-hour cuts in service to 400,000, as Puerto Rico’s main reservoirs continue to shrink, according to the island’s water and sewer company. Last month was the fourth-driest month on record in San Juan since 1898. Now the drought has forced some businesses in Puerto Rico to temporarily close—closures which will further erode critical tax revenues, including recently increased sales and use tax revenues. But the island’s travails will have widespread fiscal reverberations: if Puerto Rico fails to make interest payments on its $72 billion public debt, pension funds across the U.S. could find themselves unable to meet their own payment obligations. Thus, even as Congress has slipped out of town without any consideration of what threatens to become a much more national financial crisis, tens of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico are facing an immediate issue—one with potential serious health and safety consequences—and one which even a simple debt restructuring, were Puerto Rico’s bondholders to agree to it — would not resolve the fiscal and increasingly physical challenge. Absent some intervention, the U.S. territory, with a population of 3.6 million, assumes that each and every person on the island would need to pay $1,400 a year — 9 percent of Puerto Rico’s per-capita income — just to cover this year’s $5 billion principal and interest payments on the debt.

Advice and Consent. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans told his fellow commissioners yesterday that agreeing to a consent agreement is Wayne County’s only option for resolving its financial emergency: “It’s the only rational option…It keeps power in the county’s hands.” Mr. Evans’ remarks came as he and his colleagues must opt for one of four options under Michigan law: a consent agreement, mediation, appointment of an emergency manager, or Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Evans added, yesterday, that Michigan State Treasurer Nick Khouri had told him earlier in the day that the county could be released from a consent agreement as early as next April. Commissioner Burton Leland, D-Detroit, said the panel’s realistic choices are limited. “There are really only a couple of options,” he said. “Bankruptcy and emergency manager aren’t really options.” Commissioners have until 5 p.m. today to make their decision—with the most radical to, in effect, remove themselves and hand over power and governance authority to an unelected emergency manager. For his part, the County Executive made clear he would prefer a consent agreement: such an agreement, he said, would spell out specific budgetary reforms the county would have to meet, adding that power is only a tool—and one he would not necessarily need to use if cost-saving contracts with Wayne County’s labor unions could be negotiated, noting: “I would much rather negotiate contracts with our unions than impose them…Because I have the hammer doesn’t mean I drop it.” Leaders of Wayne County’s public unions asked commissioners to consider how their decision might impact workers before they vote, with Edward McNeil of AFSCME testifying: “You commissioners were asking (Executive Evans) if the consent agreement would take away your power…If you go with a consent agreement, you take away our power to sit down and negotiate (a contract) on equal footing.” The issue confronting the elected leaders is how they can address a $52 million annual structural deficit—a deficit caught between the Scylla of a $100 million drop in annual property tax revenue since 2008 and the Charybdis of the county’s desperately underfunded pension system: Wayne County’s primary pension plan is 45 percent funded and has a liability of $910.5 million, based on the latest actuarial valuation. Officials currently project Wayne County’s deficit could reach $171.4 million by FY2019 absent immediate fiscal steps.

Rolling the Fiscal Dice. Standard & Poor’s Monday cut Atlantic City’s general obligation credit rating three notches to BB, citing uncertainty over whether the fiscally stressed municipality can meet its fiscal obligations this year, with S&P analyst Timothy Little commenting that Atlantic City confronts short-term fiscal risks from the “lack of a clear plan” to plug an estimated 2015 deficit of $101 million, adopting a 2016 fiscal budget and achieving tax collection projections. Mr. Littler noted: “The downgrade reflects continued uncertainty regarding the long-term fiscal stability and recovery of the city as it responds to increasing liabilities from tax appeals and an eroding tax base… [it] reflects our view that the city is more vulnerable to nonpayment since our last review given that three months have passed without additional clarity on how the city will propose to resolve its long-term financial challenges.” The downgrade came as the city—rather than awaiting tonight’s GOP debate—instead is frustrated by the delay in action by Gov. Chris Christie. Atlantic City Revenue Director Michael Stinson made clear that Atlantic City not only has met its August debt payments, but also that he expects a balanced budget to be achieved in early September, provided Gov. Christie signs legislation to implement a state fiscal package which would provide the city with additional revenue. Mr. Stinson added that Atlantic City was successful in selling some $40.5 million in Municipal Qualified Bond Act (MQBA) bonds last May to pay off a state loan and that tourism has been up this summer, noting: “There has been nothing negative happening to the city since we issued those bonds in May…A downgrade at this point is unwarranted.” But S&P’s Little wrote that although Atlantic City was able to address immediate financial and liquidity pressures through the MQBA bonds, the future ability of Atlantic City to the municipal bond market remained more of a gamble, adding that since the release last March of a 60-day report from the city’s emergency manager Kevin Lavin, there has been no clarity on potential payment deferrals. Indeed, on July 1st, Mr. Lavin said that all options are on the table with a potential municipal bankruptcy filing not ruled out—in effect reemphasizing the confused governance situation with regard to his role and relationship with Mayor Don Guardian, leading Mr. Little to note: “The lack of clear and implementable reforms to restore fiscal solvency without payment deferrals or debt restructuring remains uncertain as the city continues to operate in a difficult fiscal environment.”

Is Municipal Bankruptcy a Dirty Word? Moody’s, in a decidedly unmoody examination, today wrote that the nation’s city and county leaders no longer consider municipal bankruptcy to be taboo; rather, they said, fiscally distressed cities and counties in those states which authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy are increasingly likely to consider it a viable option, based upon their examination of recent municipal bankruptcies, adding that “The number of general government bankruptcies following the recession remains low, but is still remarkable compared to the long-term experience of the U.S. municipal market since World War II.” They noted that four of the five largest municipal bankruptcy filings in U.S. history have been made in a little more than three years, a record they attributed to a slow recovery from the Great Recession, but also to changing attitudes about debt. But they also noted that the successful recovery from municipal bankruptcy by municipalities such as Central Falls, Jefferson County, and Detroit—in addition to the willingness of investors to come back to defaulting cities like Wenatchee, Washington could further help change municipal investors’ perceptions with regard to default and bankruptcy: “In the apparent absence of a severe or prolonged capital markets penalty, it is not surprising that various governors, mayors, and other local government officials have come to consider bankruptcy as a potentially realistic and effective option for restructuring liabilities.” The magnificent seven also noted that while these municipal bankruptcies have gained wider acceptance and appear—at least so far—to have worked; they have been less friendly to municipal bondholders, noting especially that pensions have been largely protected, whilst municipal bondholders have taken steep cuts, adding: “A more frequent use of bankruptcy by distressed credits does not in and of itself alter our overall stable outlooks for the state and local government sectors, but it does underscore how the recent recession has resulted in significant pockets of pressure, ongoing challenges of balancing rising fixed costs against anti-tax sentiment and a tighter budgetary ‘new normal’ that is less resistant to new shocks…We expect that bankruptcy and default will remain infrequent among rated local governments and consequently expect no change to our broad distribution of municipal ratings.”

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