Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the growing physical and fiscal breakdown in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico as it seeks, along with the oversight PROMESA Board, an alternative to municipal bankruptcy, after which we journey north to review the remarkable fiscal recovery from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of one of the nation’s smallest municipalities.
Tropical Fiscal Typhoon. Puerto Rico is trapped in a vicious fiscal whirlpool where the austerity measures it has taken to meet short-term obligations to its creditors all across the U.S., including laying off some 30,000 public sector employees and increasing its sales tax by nearly 75% have seemingly backfired—doing more fiscal harm than good: it has devastated its economy, depleted revenue sources, and put the government on a vicious cycle of increasingly drastic fiscal steps in an effort to make payments—enough so that nearly 33% of the territory’s revenue is currently going to creditors and bondholders, even as its economy has shrunk 10% since 2006, while its poverty rate has grown to 45%. At the same time, a demographic imbalance has continued to accelerate with the exit of some 300,000 Puerto Ricans—mostly the young and better educated—leaving for Miami and New York. Puerto Rico and its public agencies owe $73 billion to its creditors, nearly 500% greater than the nearly $18 billion in debts accumulated by Detroit when it filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy four years ago in what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thus, with the island’s hedge-fund creditors holding defaulted municipal general obligation bonds on the verge of completing a consensual agreement earlier this week, the PROMESA oversight board intervened to halt negotiations and place Puerto Rico under the Title III quasi municipal bankruptcy protection. That will set up courtroom confrontations between an impoverished population, wealthy municipal bondholders in every state in the domestic U.S., and hedge funds—pitted against some of the poorest U.S. citizens and their future. Nevertheless, as Congress contemplated, the quasi-municipal bankruptcy process enacted as part of the PROMESA statute provides the best hope for Puerto Rico’s future.
Thus the PROMESA Board has invoked these provisions of the PROMESA statute before a federal judge in San Juan, in what promises to be a long process—as we have seen in Detroit, San Bernardino, and other cities, but with one critical distinction: each of the previous municipal bankruptcies has involved a city or county—the quasi municipal bankruptcy here is more akin to a filing by a state. (Because of the dual federalism of our founding fathers, Congress may not enact legislation to permit states to file for bankruptcy protection.) Unsurprisingly, when Puerto Rico was made a U.S. territory under the Jones-Shafroth Act, no one contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy. Moreover, as chapter 9, as authorized by Congress, only provides that a city or county may file for chapter 9 bankruptcy if authorized by its respective state; Puerto Rico inconveniently falls into a Twilight Zone—to write nothing with regard to access to such protections for Puerto Rico’s 87 municipalities or muncipios.
Moreover, while from Central Falls, Rhode Island to Detroit, the role of public pension obligations has played a critical role in those chapter 9 resolutions; the challenge could be far greater here: in Puerto Rico, retired teachers and police officers do not participate in Social Security. Adopting deep cuts to their pensions would be a virtual impossibility. So now it is that Puerto Rico will be in a courtroom to confront hedge funds, mutual funds, and bond insurers, after the negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors over a PROMESA Board-approved fiscal plan that allocates about $787 million a year to creditors for the next decade, less than a quarter of what they are owed, was deemed by said creditors to be a slap in the face—with the Board having pressed for a combination of debt restructuring spending cuts in its efforts to revive an economy trapped by a 45% poverty rate—and where the Board had proposed upping water rates on consumers, liquidating its decades-old industrial development bank, and seeking concessions from creditors of other government agencies. Moreover, amid all this, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has recently renegotiated to mitigate politically unpopular fee increases on residents, now finds himself nearly transfixed between desperate efforts to sort out governance, meet demands of his constituents and taxpayers, and negotiate with a federally imposed oversight board, even as he is in the midst of a campaign for U.S. statehood ahead of a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status—and in the wake of being named a defendant in a lawsuit by hedge funds after the expiration of a stay on such suits expired this week. Hedge funds holding general obligation and sales-tax bonds filed the suit on Tuesday, naming Gov. Rosselló as a defendant—albeit, the suit, and others, are nearly certain to be frozen, as the main judicial arena now will fall into a quasi-chapter 9 courtroom epic battle. And that battle will not necessarily be able to fully look to prior chapter 9 judicial precedents: while Title III incorporates features of chapter 9, the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code covering insolvent municipal entities, courts have never interpreted key provisions of Title III—a title, moreover, which protections for creditors which chapter 9 does not.
The Rich Chocolatey Road to Recovery! Moody’s has awarded one of the nation’s smallest municipalities, Central Falls, aka Chocolate City, Rhode Island, its second general obligation bond upgrade in two months, a sign of the former mill city’s ongoing recovery from municipal bankruptcy—an upgrade which Mayor James Diossa unsurprisingly noted to be “very important.” Moody’s noted that its upgrade “reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city’s emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012,” adding that it expects the city will enhance its flexibility when its plan of debt adjustment period ends at the end of next month—at which time one of the nation’s smallest cities (one square mile and 19,000 citizens) will implement a policy of requiring maintenance of unassigned general fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures. In its upgrade, Moody’s reported the upgrade reflected Central Falls’ high fixed costs, referring to its public pension obligations, OPEB, and debt service–costs which add up to nearly 30% of its budget—and what it termed a high sensitivity to adverse economic trends compared with other municipalities, with the rating agency noting that a sustained increase in fund balance and maintenance of structural balance could lead to a further upgrade, as could a reduction in long-term liabilities and fixed costs and material tax-base and growth.