Perspectives on Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the potential descent into municipal bankruptcy by Hartford—and whether, if, and if so, how, the state might help. Then, as U.S. Judge Laura Swain preps for deliberations to begin tomorrow in Puerto Rico, we consider preliminary agreements yesterday with the U.S. territory’s Government Development Bank. 

A State Capital’s Near Bankruptcy. The Hartford City Council is letting Mayor Tony George get his way in dealing with the Connecticut city’s crushing debt, having voted 3-2 to borrow up to $52 million to restructure the city’s long-term debt (the city has $550 million total debt outstanding), a plan Mayor George has been seeking for months—indeed, the Mayor had given an ultimatum to the Council to approve the plan, or he would seek to have the city declared financially distressed under the state’s Act 47. Councilman Tony Brooks, who had previously opposed the plan, broke the tie, stating: “If I have to choose between debt or a tax increase, I will choose debt.” The votes came in the wake of Mayor Bronin and Hartford Corporation Counsel Howard Rifkin acknowledging that Hartford had been soliciting proposals for law firms in the event of a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, even as Gov. Malloy was proposing to draw on the state’s reserves in an effort to the Nutmeg State’s current fiscal-year budget balance in the wake of his Budget Secretary’s reduction in projected state revenues by $409.5 million, a reduction plunging the general fund deficit to minus $389.8 million—making it seem as if the pleading was to Mother Hubbard just when her cupboard was bare.

The cratering fiscal situation was underlined by the additional credit rating downgrade yesterday from S&P Global Ratings, with analyst Victor Medeiros noting: “The downgrade and the credit watch placement reflect the heightened uncertainty on whether the state will increase intergovernmental aid or otherwise lend the necessary state support to enable Hartford to achieve structural balance and prevent it from further fiscal deterioration.” Last year, S&P and Moody’s each hit the city with four-notch downgrades, citing rising debt-service payments, higher required pension contributions, health-care cost inflation, costly legal judgments from years past, and unrealized concessions from most labor unions. Now the Mayor and Council face deficits of $14 million this year and nearly 400% higher next year. Yet even with such projected deficits, Mayor George he has been unable to gain meaningful union concessions—and the outlook for his requested $40 million in additional state aid seems bleak. Mayor Bronin describes the fiscal crisis this way: “Acting alone, Hartford has no road to a sustainable budget path.” Hartford City Administrator Ted Wampole advised the elected officials that the proposed borrowing and debt restructuring plan would put the city in a better cash flow position headed into the new year, albeit warning it would just be the first in a series of difficult decisions the city faces when it comes to finances; he added that all expenses will be evaluated, as will possible ways to increase revenues, noting: “This is the very beginning of what will be a long process…This is something we needed to do. The alternative is we run out of money.”

Could the State Really Help? If there is grim news for Hartford, it is that the state is itself fiscally strapped: Connecticut Governor Danel Malloy has called for virtually wiping out the state’s rainy-day fund.  In Connecticut, a municipality may only file with the express prior written permission or consent from the Governor (see Conn. §7-566)—with Bridgeport, in 1991, the only previous city to ever file for chapter 9 [a filing dismissed in August of the same year]). Now legislative gridlock persists as thousands of state employees face layoffs. Bond rating agencies have hammered both the state and capital city Hartford over the past year. Fitch Ratings at the end of last week dropped Connecticut’s issuer default rating to A-plus from AA-minus, the first to move the state out of the double-A category. Nevertheless, according to Mr. Medeiros, uncertainty over state aid prompted Hartford to seek solicitations for a bankruptcy lawyer: “While a bankruptcy filing remains distant, in our opinion, by raising the possibility, we believe that elected officials are seeking to better understand the legal qualifications, process, and consequences associated with this action if there is no budgetary support at the state level.” Governor Malloy has also announced deficit-mitigation actions in an effort to close the current-year shortfall, writing to Nutmeg state legislators: “I find it necessary to take aggressive steps.” Such steps include draining all but $1.3 million of the budget reserve fund, nearly $100 million in revenue transfers, $33.5 million in rescissions, and $22.6 million in other actions—including cuts in state aid to local governments—cuts which will require legislative approval. Gov. Malloy has also begun a contingency plan for laying off state workers—especially in anticipation, as the state faces a possible FY2018-19 $5 billion shortfall—and political as well as fiscal challenges in a state where the Senate is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans 18-18, and the Democrats hold a slim 79-72 advantage in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Malloy last February proposed a $40.6 billion biennial budget, proposing a shift of teacher pension costs to municipalities—hardly a proposal which would help Hartford—and one which has, so far, encountered little support in the legislature. In a seeming understatement, S&P Ratings noted: “This could help stabilize the share of the state’s budget devoted to its substantial fixed costs, a potentially positive credit development, although it may pressure local government finances.” According to Moody’s, Connecticut continues to have the highest debt-service costs as a percent of own-source governmental revenues among the 50 states, even though it declined from 14.3% to 13.3%. 

Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Preparations in the Federal Court, in Hato Rey, the U.S. territoriy’s banking district and the closest thing to a downtown that Puerto Rico has, for tomorrow’s first hearing related to the process of restructuring the public debt of Puerto Rico, under Title III of PROMESA before federal Judge Laura Swain are underway: the preparations alone will necessitate rejiggering court rooms, including ensuring one is available for closed circuit TV coverage and another for the general public.  Title III of the federal law PROMESA permits a process of public debt restructuring, which is supervised by a Tribunal, as long as the creditors and the government do not reach agreements that benefit them both.

The trial begins after, yesterday, Puerto Rico announced that the Government Development Bank, which had served as the primary fiscal agent for the U.S. territory, had reached a liquidation agreement with its creditors, avoiding a protracted bankruptcy, with the agreement executed under the terms of Title VI of the PROMESA statute, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s office—an agreement which would avoid a Title III bankruptcy, and, under which the bank’s assets will be split between two separate entities, according to a term sheet made public yesterday. Under the agreement, the first entity, holding $5.3 billion in GDB assets, would issue three tranches of debt with different protections in exchange for varying principal reductions: beneficiaries would include municipal depositors and bondholders, such as Avenue Capital Management, Brigade Capital Management, and Fir Tree Partners. The second entity, funded with public entity loans and $50 million in cash, would benefit all other depositors. While the details remain to be confirmed, the agreement would appear to mean a haircut of approximately 45% for a group of small municipal bondholders in Puerto Rico, with potential losses of up to 45 percent for some bondholders. A spokesperson for the Governor issued a statement on his behalf noting: “[B]efore we are bondholders, we are Puerto Ricans, and we recognize the circumstances that Puerto Rico faces.”

The government bank’s plan represents an end to what was once the equivalent of a central bank in charge of holding deposits from government agencies and Puerto Rico’s nearly 100 municipalities—and marks the steps to comply with the PROMESA Board’s approval last month of steps to wind down the bank.

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