Puerto Rico & Municipal Bankruptcy: a process of pain where “failure is not an option.”

eBlog

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the opening under U.S. Judge Laura Swain of the unique, quasi chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy process which opened this week in Puerto Rico, where Judge Swain noted the process “will certainly involve pain,” but that “failure is not an option.”

Getting Ready to Rumble. Judge Swain has combined two major PROMESA Title III filings made earlier this month by Puerto Rican authorities—one for its general obligation debt, and one for debt which is backed by the Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth or COFINA sales tax revenues. Reuters helps explain, writing: “The island’s initial bankruptcy filing on [May 3] included only its central government, which owes some $18 billion in general obligation, or GO debt, backed by its constitution…The COFINA filing [on May 5] will pull in another $17 billion or so in debt under the Title III umbrella. Overall the island’s government and various agencies have a debt load of $74 billion that they cannot repay.” Unsurprisingly, as Bloomberg notes, a sizeable separation between general obligation and COFINA bondholders has already emerged. Judge Swain’s early decision to merge the two filings for administrative purposes appears to denote a small victory for the PROMESA Board, as some COFINA stakeholders had objected (COFINA bondholders were the first to sue the government of Puerto Rico after the freeze on creditor litigation under PROMESA expired at Midnight May 1st.) They accuse Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rossello and other officials of angling to repurpose the tax revenue earmarked to pay COFINA debt.: they argued that COFINA is a separate entity whose assets, in the form of sales tax revenue, are earmarked only for creditors.” The debt here dwarfs any we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, etc.: Puerto Rico, according to the PROMESA Board, cannot even meet 25% of its $900 million necessary to service its municipal debt. And, in some sense, that debt—owed to investors in the 50 states, pales compared to the human obligations at home: NPR’s Greg Allen describes: “retirees who are owed pensions; 180 closed public schools, $500 million in cuts proposed for the university here…So lots of pain to come here—and the governor is going to be releasing a budget later this month, which will show a lot more pain coming. Among the things that are going to happen is, I think, big cuts in health care benefits.” He estimated the trial could exceed the duration of Detroit’s chapter 9, taking as many as five years to conclude. Judge Swain will—as Judge Rhodes had to in Detroit, and as was the very hard case in Central Falls, Rhode Island’s municipal bankruptcy‒Puerto Rico’s $49 billion in government pension obligations. But Puerto Rico’s debt is not just fiscal: the island has a poverty rate of 45%–a level dwarfing what we have experienced in previous chapter 9 bankruptcies. The current case may not affect all of these because some are for the employees of semi-autonomous Puerto Rico entities like the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. And, the trial here dwarfs the previous largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, where the stakes involved $18 billion in debt, pension obligations, and other OPEB benefits. The pension obligations have been described as liabilities of as much as $45 billion. On the trial’s first day, Judge Swain heard presentations with regard to whether the case should include mediation—and, if so, which parties should be included: that is, she will have a Solomon-like set of choices, choosing between Puerto’s Rico’s citizens, its municipal bondholders, suppliers owed money, pensioners, and government employees. Judge Swain will also hear presentations with regard to whether—and when‒Puerto Rico should be required to submit lists of its creditors and in what manner and how notice to creditors will be made. The PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Martin Bienenstock said he anticipates other Puerto Rico public entities, including the Highways and Transportation Authority, would soon file for Title III later. The considerations in the court will also have to address how some $800 million set aside in Puerto Rico’s certified 10-year fiscal recovery plan will be apportioned between competing claims–including those of constitutionally backed general obligation debt (GO) and sales-tax backed or COFINA bonds.

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