The Hard Choices Forced by State or Local Fiscal Distress

eBlog

August 28, 2015

The Distressing Costs of Municipal Debt Adjustment. For a municipality, state, or—in this case, U.S. territory in serious fiscal distress, without access to bankruptcy so that the options for ensuring sufficient cash to provide essential services are at risk, just the costs of structuring a plan to return to a fiscally sustainable future can be daunting. Indeed, early reports indicate Puerto Rico has already spent as much as $60 million over the last two years as it nears its deadline for proposing a quasi-plan of debt adjustment in this twilight zone where there is neither a U.S. bankruptcy court nor any other official arbiter to adjudicate whatever proposals Governor Padilla ends up proposing next week to address Puerto Rico’s unpayable $72 billion in accumulated debts. Moreover, of course, the meter is still running—each day consuming more legal and consulting fees that leave less and less for upset creditors, public services, and the island’s bondholders in every state of the U.S. Fabulous Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics tersely sums up the dilemma: “It’s an incredibly complex restructuring, with a lot of different investor groups, a lot of different securities and moving parts.” Puerto Rico’s public power utility and its creditors face a Tuesday deadline on a restructuring plan for its $9 billion of debt or an agreement that keeps discussions out of court will expire. Nevertheless, as the nation’s preeminent municipal bankruptcy wizard Jim Spiotto noted, the investment in these outside professionals could be critical to providing a way out for the commonwealth that will improve the economy and make its debt sustainable: “The analysis part is important in addressing it in an effective way, so that the money you spend is well spent, because you’re going to need a recovery plan that is going improve the situation, grow the commonwealth, and, thereby, improve the situation for everyone.”

What Options Does Congress Have? Even as Puerto Rican leaders are perusing options to sort out its overwhelming debt, the Congressional Research Service has offered Members of Congress options, “Puerto Rico’s Current Fiscal Challenges,” it could act upon in response to Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis ranging from backstopping its debt to authorizing the U.S. territory access to municipal bankruptcy. The report notes that the U.S. government “has generally been reluctant to offer direct financial assistance to individual states in fiscal distress, although Congress at times has adjusted technical parameters of federal programs to provide direct or indirect support for states…The independence of state governments to set their own fiscal paths has been linked to an expectation that those governments take responsibility for the consequences of their fiscal decisions.” Under the dual sovereignty of our form of government there are constitutional limitations on any federal authority.  Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and the former Territory of Florida all recorded bankruptcies in the period running up to and through the great Panic of 1837. By 1841, 19 of the then 26 states, as well as two of the three U.S. territories had issued municipal bonds and incurred state debt—debt on which these aforementioned states and Florida defaulted. Ironically, the majority of state debt was owed to parties outside the U.S., primarily Europe. Nevertheless, the state debts were largely paid off in full by the late 1840s, notwithstanding that no direct sanctions were enacted to force repayment.

In this new report to Congress, the CRS author noted that Congress could:

• amend the current Chapter 9 bankruptcy law to allow access to Puerto Rico’s public corporations and municipalities; or,
• backstop Puerto Rico’s debt, which would help reduce its borrowing costs (noting that this has been done in the U.S. and elsewhere, usually contingent on budgetary or structural reform requirements.)

CRS also reported that the U.S. government guaranteed Mexico’s government debt in 1994-1995, as well as provided indirect credit support to some states in the 1930’s through 1950’s via the Reconstruction Finance Corp., noting, for example, the RFC “acted as an intermediary in helping to roll over $136 billion in debt for the State of Arkansas” after Arkansas had defaulted on its debt in 1933. The report also suggested Congress could waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico—a significant unfunded federal mandate which requires ships operating between U.S. ports to be owned by U.S. citizens or companies, to have been constructed in the U.S., and to be operated by U.S. citizens. The CRS report also noted that Congress, as it did for the District of Columbia in 1995, could call for a financial control board. Finally, the CRS report notes that whilst Congress has traditionally been reluctant to provide assistance to states overwhelmed by fiscal storms, it has not been reluctant after natural storms—mayhap timely given yesterday’s memories of the federal assistance granted to Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—and, Congress provided both direct and indirect support for New York City in the wake of its fiscal crisis in 1975.

First Chapter 9 since Detroit. Hillview, Kentucky City Attorney Tammy Baker has described the small city’s filing for federal bankruptcy protection as “a very difficult decision” for the city’s elected leaders, but, because of the mounting interest costs from a court judgment against the city, costing it more than $3,700 a day, she notes: “The city really ended up with no choice…With the interest accruing at that rate, it’s just really going to be impossible for the city to pay that judgment.” Counselor Baker has advised the Bond Buyer that the Kentucky municipality, which has filed for municipal bankruptcy, does not intend to restructure its municipal bond debt as part of its plan of debt adjustment. Hillview, the first municipality to file for bankruptcy since Detroit, filed its petition in order to halt payments it owes of thousands of dollars in accruing interest in the wake of an $11.4 million judgment against it—or, as Counselor Baker described it: “What the [municipal] bankruptcy has allowed is breathing room for the city…The interest has been stopped.” The effective halt on the interest payments offers breathing room for the small municipality to develop a plan to address the breach of contract judgment it lost to Truck America Training LLC. Its plan of debt adjustment will have to address some $1.39 million in debt it owes on outstanding general obligation municipal bonds Hillview issued in 2010, and $1.78 million as part of a 2010 pool bond issued on its behalf by the Kentucky Bond Corp. However, in her email to the Bond Buyer, Counselor Baker wrote: “The city does not intend to restructure any bonds through the filing…In fact, we are of the belief that such a restructuring could not be done.” In describing why the city filed its abrupt municipal bankruptcy last week, Ms. Baker noted: “The main reason the city filed for bankruptcy is to halt the crushing interest [of] $3,759 daily from accruing while we develop a plan.” While the filing might provide some instant r-o-l-a-i-d-s for the small municipality, it comes not only with the kinds of costs Puerto Rico is experiencing, but also in terms of borrowing costs: S&P last Friday dropped the municipality’s credit rating five notches to B-minus from BB-plus, and placed the lower rating on CreditWatch with negative implications pending a determination by the federal bankruptcy court on the city’s petition—the lower rating appears to have already translated into at least a ten percent increase to the cost of capital borrowing for Hillview—which, in its petition to the federal bankruptcy court, estimated its liabilities as high as $100 million versus assets of $10 million.

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