The Raceway to Recovery

Taking the Checkered Flag. Detroit, on the verge of posting its third consecutive balanced budget, appears on course to exit state oversight as early as next year in the wake of yesterday’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) demonstrating the Motor City has steadied its finances after emerging more than three years ago from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The state’s Detroit Financial Review Board could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill, who noted: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.” The CAFR, officially released Wednesday, appears to support the city’s hopes to soon regain full authority over its own finances: The report notes that Detroit ended its FY2017 with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million—even better than the city had originally projected: it ended its most recent fiscal year with a $63 million surplus—as well as a general fund unassigned fund balance of $169 million, better than 15% increase from the previous fiscal year, leading CFO Hill, as he prepares to present the results to the commission at a meeting later this month, to note: “It allows us to have a really good base of information as we are going into our budget process…It also gives us a chance to address some of the items that are identified as things we need to work on.” Mr. Hill added that Detroit has demonstrated vast improvements in its financial health, citing credit rating agency upgrades from rating agencies, a higher employment rate, and enhanced assessed property values: “I have to say that certainly there has been a positive impact from the financial review commission oversight: It’s been a real constructive process where the city has excelled.”

For his part, Mayor Mike Duggan noted that a third straight balanced budget proves his administration, in partnership with the City Council can “effectively manage the city’s finances: “This is another big step forward and helps set the stage for the end of the active state financial oversight,” as the Mayor preps to present the new budget later this month. Detroit Financial Review Commission member “Ike” McKinnon also credited the leadership role Mayor Duggan deserved for with getting the city’s finances back on track: “I remember when Mike Duggan took over as Mayor, we certainly had some hope and thoughts that things would happen…I did not know that it would happen this quickly. This says a lot about what he’s doing and certainly working with the state.”

The state’s financial review commission could vote to waive its authority over the city as early as next month, according to Mr. Hill. Zin any event, even if it does not, Detroit would no longer require the state board’s approval on budgeting or contracts, as it has since exiting chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. As Mr. Hill put it: “We believe we have met all the criteria for the waiver…I believe this will be the last budget that will be done under the FRC’s authority.”

Key highlights of Detroit’s CAFR include the Motor City ending FY2017 fiscal year with a $53.8 million general fund operating surplus and revenues exceeding expenditures by $108.6 million. (The City had projected a $51 million surplus for FY2017). Detroit’s general fund unassigned fund balance will be $169 million, a $26 million increase from the previous fiscal year, according to the report. 

Detroit has also reported improvements in its management of $100 million in federal grants with no questioned costs resulting from audits, for the second consecutive year—after, two years ago, the city had federal funding for blight demolition funding suspended for two months due to procedural errors. Thus, hopes are high for the release from state oversight, albeit, concerns remain with regard to the looming 2024 pension payment and subsequent debt restructuring the following year. Mr. Hill notes: “I am sure that the FRC, as well as the city–because we are dealing with those issues, will be looking at those two items to make sure that plans are in place, money has been put aside, and the budget is able to absorb the additional costs that will come in those years.” Detroit is confronted by challenges to amortize debt payments on roughly $630 million of B notes that would see payments jump from $60 million to $120 million by 2025—notes issued as part of the implementation of Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment—notes which are unsecured. Indeed, pending before the City Council is a proposal pending to dedicate $50 million from the city coffers to pay begin paying off the debt. Going forward, according to Mr. Hill, the strategy would be to dedicate a combination of restructuring some of the debt as well as paying it off, with the effort to address pension obligations a critical component to shoring up Detroit’s long-term fiscal health. The Motor City’s  long-term funding model approved by the City Council to modify its pension provisions which established the Retiree Protection Trust Fund, and deposited $105 million–$90 million from amounts reserved in FY2016 and 2017, plus $15 million appropriated in Fiscal 2018—and, for FY2018-2021 including the addition of an additional $115 million, contemplates another $115 million from FY2022–FY2023.

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Unequal and/or Inequitable Fiscal & Physical Responses

January 29, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the seemingly unending physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and   physical recovery.

Post Storm Fiscal & Physical Misery. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority faces opposition from local political leaders; thus, it may prove to be a tough sell to potential investors: the proposal, which the Governor has presented to privatize PREPA, the public utility burdened with some $8.2 billion of municipal bond debt—and the utility which the PROMESA Oversight Board has put into a Title III bankruptcy process, creating potential hurdles for any plan to alter its ownership, notwithstanding that Board members have expressed support for the idea. For his part, Puerto Rico House Minority Leader Rafael Hernández Montañez said he thought Governor Rosselló was seeking to distract people from his problems with his PREPA privatization proposal: “It’s a way of taking off the heat, on the re-energization of the houses and stores.” That is to write that the Gov. understands that neither the Puerto Rico House nor Senate will approve his proposal—so, Minority Leader Montañez asserts he is just posturing for public support, he said. Members of Gov. Rosselló’s own party in the legislature; moreover, appear to be opposed. Nevertheless, as part of the Title III PROMESA quasi-chapter 9 bankruptcy, parts of the utility appear certain candidates for sale–albeit, this would be a decision made by Judge Laura Taylor Swain—not Governor Rosselló.  

Moreover, there is apprehension that the Governor’s governance proposal would be unlikely to generate any support from investors, either: Tom Sanzillo, Director of Finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, noted: “We fail to see how any investor would put money into Puerto Rico with a regulatory system like that proposed by Gov. Rosselló: “He appoints and can fire board members at will. Under the current system, board members have staggered, fixed terms, and can only be fired for cause…This means the whim of every new Governor sets rules and contracts. This makes energy investing highly risky, contracts uncertain, and a politicized investment environment.” Indeed, Tomás Torres, Project Director at the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy, believes the Puerto Rico Energy Commission’s oversight should be strengthened, and it should implement any transformation of PREPA.

Jose Rossi Coughlin, Chairman of the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy has expressed apprehension about any interruption of key regulatory processes, much less permitting each new Governor to select all commission members when she or he assumes elected office—noting that is not only contrary to widely prevailing mainland U.S. practice, but also likely legally incompatible with Title V of PROMESA. For his part, Mr. Torres notes that with the Governor’s submission, last week, of a bill to eliminate the Energy Commission and substitute in its place a Public Service Commission (which would merge Telecom, Transportation & Public Services, and the Energy Commission), the “The three commissions/boards that are to be merged in this new body add to 15 commissioners, but the new boards will only be of three members…“The recently proposed Energy Commission reorganization and consolidation with other public service regulation would be a huge step backward.”

Moody’s Investor Service was not quite as pessimistic, writing: “The [proposed] privatization itself is positive, because it is another source of capital to help solve PREPA’s fiscal problems; however, there are still challenges; including negotiating a price in an environment of declining Puerto Rico population, investing in rebuilding aging infrastructure, and how PREPA’s pension liability will be handled. The 18-month timeline appears quite aggressive.” For its part, the PREPA Bondholders Group said they would support a “private operator” to “immediately” take over operations, subject to the Puerto Rico Energy Commission oversight. Indeed, in statement sent out by Gov. Rosselló’s office, some representatives of Puerto Rico’s business community indicated their support for the proposal, with Nelson Ramírez of the United Center of Retailers, noting: “The announced changes will allow Puerto Rico to become a competitive jurisdiction, ending a monopoly that discourages investment and the creation of jobs,” albeit, as Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia Gautier said, the proposal was a step in the right direction but that “the devil is in the details.”  Leader Bhatia-Gautier, a co-founder and former editor of the Stanford Journal of Law and Policy, with previous service as a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, as well as Chief of Staff for the resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress, is the 15th president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, where he has focused on the U.S. Territory’s fiscal system and authored a comprehensive energy reform law. Now, he asserts that Puerto Rico’s electrical system should be decentralized into 20 to 25 micro grids, and believes that, with federal assistance, Puerto Rico should try for widespread installation of solar panels on rooftops. Nevertheless, as he notes: even though the Governor and the Puerto Rico legislature will privatize PREPA, the reality is that Judge Swain will have to be involved.

Power to the Muncipio? Jayuya Mayor Jorge L. González Otero, a muncipio founded in 1911, at a time it featured a population of around 9,000, was certain that power would be restored to close to 10,000 residents of his northwest coast municipality of around 88,000, on Saturday. Some 35% of residents in Arecibo do not currently have electricity, he reported, albeit, he said he had received word from PREPA that one of the region’s substations, Charco Hondo, would receive a generator from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to power a temporary micro grid while repairs on the substation continue. The muncipio, which, at its founding, was separated from the larger cities of the coasts with little to no communication: it was the site of the Jayuya uprising in 1950, in which the Nationalists commenced a revolt against the U.S. Government, when a social worker, Doris Torresola, and her cousins led the group into the town square and gave a speech, declaring Puerto Rico an independent republic. Subsequently, the police station was attacked, telephone lines cut, and the post office burned to the ground. The Nationalists held the town for three days, until it was bombed by U.S. planes, which were supporting a ground attack by the Puerto Rican National Guard. Even though an extensive part of the town was destroyed, however, news of the bombing was not reported outside of Puerto Rico. Today, unsurprisingly, the Mayor notes: “Four months is way too much time for people in Puerto Rico to not have energy. All of us, the representatives, the mayors, the people, the senators, have to raise our voices to get things done.”

In fact, last month, he had reached an agreement with PREPA to temporarily restore power by means of the micro grid: last Saturday, the Mayor planned to tour the substation with PREPA’s interim director, Justo González, as the generator was being installed. However, in another example of the dysfunction which has plagued Puerto Rico’s recovery, there was no sign of the generator, nor even PREPA’s interim director at the Charco Hondo substation—meaning thousands of Arecibo’s residents remained in darkness, just like nearly one-third of all Puerto Ricans: more than one million U.S. citizens—darkness wherein there is no remote contemplation of when power might be restored: a spokesperson for PREPA told BuzzFeed News that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was overseeing the project and providing the generator. A Corps spokesperson indicated that after a second inspection of the site, the Corps had determined there was too much damage to the nearby power lines to allow the generator to be safely switched on as planned; rather, he said contractors will “begin installing” the generator over the weekend, but that it will not become operational, albeit the Corps is unable to provide “definitive time” when it will.

Renogiaciones. The Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority reports that Puerto Rico’s decision to renegotiate its public debt will cost at least $ 800 million over five years, with FAFAA, relying on an expensive cadre of attorneys, consultants, and financial advisors who have been recruited as part of an effort to cobble together a quasi-plan of debt adjustment which would reduce more than $ 70 billion owed to  Puerto Rico’s bondholders—now the cadre has to translate its fiscal algorithms before Judge Swain’s courtroom. The document, however, fails to specify whether the plan incorporates the budget for either FAFAA or the PROMESA Oversight Board, much less the vast array of advisors and lawyers who have participated in voluntary negotiations, as in the case of the Government Development Bank (GDB)—not exactly as propitious beginning as, for the first time, there is to be an assessment of the actual costs of reducing or cancelling bondholders’ debts, albeit, already, some early estimates are that such costs could exceed $1 billion—the portion of which would redound to U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, where, in comparison to the different mainland states, Puerto Rico falls far below the poorest mainland state, with 45% of its population living below the poverty line, would be most limited. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly endless process, and despite the PROMESA oversight, or quasi-chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment, there has been as yet, no agreement with any key creditor. Rather, in what many in Puerto Rico would deem noticias falsas, President Trump, last November, reported Puerto Rico was “doing well” and “it’s healing, and it’s getting better, and we’re getting them power, and all of the things that they have to have.” That was in sharp contrast with reality—or, as District Representative José “Memo” González Mercado, of Arecibo put it: “The reality is that we are U.S. citizens, but Donald Trump treats us as second-class citizens.”

Human & Fiscal Storms

January 25, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the seemingly unending physical and fiscal challenges to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and   physical recovery.

We all were sea-swallow’d though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act 

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge. 

Fiscal & Physical Storms.  In the second Act of The Tempest, William Shakespeare warned of the danger of storms. Now, in the wake of a storm and disparate federal responses, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has submitted a revised fiscal plan which estimates the U.S. territory’s economy will shrink by 11%–and its population will decline by nearly 8% next year. As submitted, the Governor’s revised fiscal proposal does not set aside any funds to reimburse creditors in the next five years as Puerto Rico seeks to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt; the original plan had set aside $800 million a year for creditors, a fraction of the roughly $35 billion due in interest and payments over the next decade. The revised five-year plan also assumes Puerto Rico will receive at least $35 billion in emergency federal funds for post-hurricane recovery and another $22 billion from private insurance companies—a generous assumption given that the U.S. Treasury Department and FEMA this month advised Puerto Rico officials they are temporarily withholding billions of dollars approved by Congress last year for post-hurricane recovery, because they believe Puerto Rico has sufficient fiscal resources.

The Governor’s revised plan does not propose either layoffs or new taxes; rather it proposes labor and tax reforms, as well as the privatization of PREPA in an effort to help generate (not a pun) revenue and promote economic development as the U.S. territory endures an 11-year recession. The Governor noted that nearly half of Puerto Rico’s  3.3 million inhabitants were in poverty prior to the hurricane—and Puerto Rico still confronts an 11 percent unemployment rate. The disparate circumstances have been aggravated in the wake of nearly half a million Puerto Ricans fleeing to the mainland U.S. over the past decade in search of jobs and opportunities—leaving behind older and less educated Puerto Ricans—an exodus which the Governor warned: “We must work as a government to prevent this from happening, and that’s what we’re focused on.” Gov. Rossello said he would hold back on his proposed $350 million cut in aid to Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities or muncipios as they continue to struggle to recover from Maria; instead, he said they will receive more money than usual in future years, adding he will also propose tax cuts, including an 11.5 percent sales and use tax to 7 percent for prepared food. His comments came as more than 30 percent of power customers still remain in the dark more than four months after Hurricane Maria.

The Promise of PROMESA? PROMESA Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko said the “Oversight Board views implementing structural reforms and investing in critical infrastructure as key to restoring economic growth and increasing confidence of residents and businesses: Our focus in certifying the revised plans will be to ensure they reflect Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane realities,” with her statement coming as the PROMESA Board has set a deadline of February 23rd to approve the plan.

Disparate Physical & Fiscal Responses to Municipal Physical & Fiscal Distress

eBlog

January 16, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges of restoring power in hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, which the Trump Administration and Congress have opted to treat in a very different manner than other hurricane devastated municipalities and states.

Prospects for Recovery. Notwithstanding the opposition of his own designated coordinator for the restoration of electric power, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello yesterday gave the go-ahead to sign an agreement which will allow Puerto Rico’s muncipios to hire companies and experts to repair the island’s electric distribution lines, with Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior, William Villafañe, announcing—in the wake of a demonstration by residents of bigger muncipios which remain without electricity since Hurricanes Irma and María passed last September, that the Electric Power Authority (AEE) will sign an agreement with the muncipios to allow them to hire companies to repair power lines. The breakthrough came in the wake of a meeting with the presidents of the Federation and the Association of Mayors, Carlos Molina (Arecibo) and Rolando Ortiz (Cayey), respectively, as well as the Mayor (Alcalde) of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera, and others officials. The agreement, which until yesterday had not been shown to the Mayors, is supposed to have a series of security restrictions; in addition, the agreement is intended to empower the muncipios to offer injury insurance, as well as be eligible for FEMA reimbursement. Secretary Villafañe noted that Governor disagreed with the result of last Monday’s meeting, in which the coordinator designated for the restoration efforts of electric power, Carlos Torres, and the AEE refused to establish an agreement with the municipios out of security concerns.

Thus, among the security conditions the agreement mandates, is that Mayors will be required to establish contracts exclusively with contractors who have specialized equipment and trucks. In a clarification, Secretary Villafañe assured reporters that PREPA retirees may continue to provide services, as is the case of the Pepino Power Authority, an initiative of the Mayor Javier Jiménez of San Sebastian—a muncipio founded in 1752 by Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who among other neighbors, had an interest in converting some cow farms into an agricultural village. The foundation of the town from the religious aspect, was consummated in December 1762 by Mariano Martin, the then Puerto Rico Catholic Bishop: by the beginning, 1700, San Sebastian was a conglomerate of a few cow farms, owned by some residents of the Partido de Aguada. Las Vegas was the former plain site of one of the first cow farms located by the Guatemala riverside at the north; another of those cow farms was Pepinito (today’s downtown), which was a low green mountain with a white calcium carbonate face. From these geographical accidents come the first names of the then new village, albeit one of the oldest municipalities in the United States: Las Vegas del Pepino (Cucumber Fields). Indeed, the permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752.

By the beginning of the 19th century, wealthy Spanish families arrived in Pepino, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Subsequently, families from Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain came to Puerto Rico as well as a significant number of isleños (Canary Islanders)—with the isleños taking over the local political power and developing a coffee industry. Much as they did in Nevada, the Basques brought some material progress to the muncipio; in addition, the new resident Basques, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, saw the need of upgrading the old traditional Pepino used by the Canary Islanders to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián—even though, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.” Permission to found the muncipio was officially given in 1752, under the leadership of the founder, Captain Cristóbal González de la Cruz, who sought to convert cattle fincas (ranches/farms) into an agricultural village—with the governmental transformation consummated in December of 1762 by Mariano Martin, the island Catholic bishop at that time. The muncipio grew by the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of wealthy Spanish families, fleeing the revolutions of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nearly a century later, several Catalon families from northern Spain and the Canary Islands joined the large number of isleños (Canary Islanders) who had made El Pepino their home—new arrivals who, in the wake of taking over the local political power, developing a coffee industry, and changing the muncipio’s name, in remembrance of their home region and its religious patron, to the new and “up-dated” San Sebastián, notwithstanding that, still today, the citizens of San Sebastián are called “pepinianos.”

For his part, the Mayor Rivera, who had notified the government last September of his interest in collaborating in the restoration of electricity, only learned yesterday that the agreement had been approved; however, the municipal executive of Cayey and President of the Association of Mayors said that as long as they do not see the document, they will not believe it, because, to date, they have neither been allowed to see or sign the document in question: Mayor Ortiz said that during the meeting yesterday, Coordinator Torres again expressed his disagreement with allowing municipalities to collaborate in the restoration of light: “He (Torres) will have control of the materials, will have control of the brigades, control of resources–and that this resource, which is so important in the process of re-energizing the country, says that he does not agree with the Mayors intervening in this process or giving us the agreement to sign…They said that they were going to give us the power to energize the system and work with brigades that we can hire, and that they will give us brigades to work with the municipalities, and they will give us materials, (but) we leave here with nothing in the hand, with a promise of agreement.” Mayor Ortiz explained that in Cayey the muncipio has retirees from PREPA willing to start working, however, absent an agreement, they are not only barred by law from doing so, but also prevented from obtaining protection from the State Insurance Fund Corporation in case of injury to these workers. The Mayor added: “What he (Coordinator Torres) does not know is that in all of our communities and in all of our cities there are people trained with extraordinary resources to work on that system, because they have done it in all the previous events.”  Nevertheless, Mayor Rivera assured that as soon as the document is sent and signed, he has two companies with three brigades ready to work in the Bayamón distribution lines. He estimated that these works can begin today, if the legal division of La Fortaleza advances in the drafting of the agreement with the municipalities.

Unbalanced Politics? The restoration efforts have also been hampered by allegations of partisan discrimination: the number of brigades distributed among the municipalities of the northern region supposedly differed by 480 in the municipalities of the New Progressive Party (PNP) versus 174 in those led by the PPD, according to the President of the Municipal Legislature of Dorado, Carlos Alberto López. However, Secretary Villafañe refuted those data with others: he indicated that among the six municipalities with less than 20% of electric power service restored, five are NPOPs, while among the 35 that already have more than 60% service, 20 are from PPD.

What Would Rod Serling Say? The former host of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, who opened each week’s show by saying a “Dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and dimension of mind: you just crossed over into The Twilight Zone,” seems consistent with Moody’s characteristically moody new report on Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan, writing: “These repeated delays in revising Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan…underscore the economic uncertainties that Puerto Rico faces as a result of post-Maria factors, including surging migration to the U.S. mainland, potentially unsustainable operating conditions for the territory’s manufacturers, and the federal recovery and rebuilding assistance that may fall short of what Puerto Rico needs to prevent lasting and severe damage to its economic base…Together, the growing challenges from these factors may further reduce already low recovery prospects for holders of Puerto Rico’s 17 rated debt types.” The insights, provided by Moody’s senior at least 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck, or about 6% of the pre-Maria population—adding that manufacturing, an important part of Puerto Rico’s economy, has been steadily dropping over the last two decades—and warning that, in the bitter wake of Maria, some manufactures may decide to move to other areas less likely to be hit by future hurricanes. The analysts further warned that the federal government’s new 12.5% excise tax on profits derived from patents and other intangible assets is another negative. Finally, they noted that the amount of federal aid to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria will affect Puerto Rico’s trajectory of recovery amid growing doubt and uncertainty whether Gov. Rosselló’s request for $94.4 billion in aid will be honored—especially, with the federal government on the verge of shutting down this week—and its failure, to date—in disbursing any portion of a Congressionally-approved $4.9 billion Community Disaster Loan to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Last week, Reorg Research reported that Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and arguments between the U.S. Treasury and Puerto Rico over the latter’s control of the funds has delayed the funds’ release.

If anything, the federal inability to act has been further clouded by unclear governance: last week, Puerto Rico Sen. Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, who, during his tenure as Senate President, had been selected as Chair of the Council of State Governments of the Eastern Regional Conference (CSG-ERC) and later elected as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, thereby becoming the first Senate President and the first Puerto Rican to preside over the organization, as well as serve on the Board of the Council of State Government (CSG), National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA); brought up a different concern about the fiscal plan’s delay: in the new style of Trumpian governance, he tweeted to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló: “This is your great opportunity to regain lost confidence…Make your fiscal plan public today, so that there is no doubt, the people know your proposal and participate in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico,” adding that the people of Puerto Rico deserved a chance to comment prior to the draft’s submission to the PROMESA Oversight Board, tweeting: “In all countries of the world, ideas are discussed before decisions are made, not later…Otherwise, the process is a mockery of the serious people of Puerto Rico who want to contribute to the common good.”

Prospects for Puerto Rico’s Recovery

January 12, 2017

Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the ongoing challenges to Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Prospects for Recovery. Puerto Rico, slammed by one of the ten strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record last September—causing not only massive physical destruction and a tragic loss of life, but also widespread and persistent power outages,  shortages of safe drinking water, and a tragic exodus of some of the U.S. territory’s young and best educated. Now, as the New York Federal Reserve notes, an even greater concern is that the adverse short-term effects of the storm, overlaid on an already shrinking economy, may evolve into long-term adverse effects. Estimates of the physical (capital) damage wrought by Hurricane Maria—to public infrastructure, businesses, homes, schools, and personal property have been estimated by Moody’s at a capital loss at up to $55 billion, part of an overall cost estimate ranging from $45-95 billion.

The issue, as in the wake of filing for a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is Puerto Rico’s long-term prospects. Last October, Puerto Rico’s payroll employment was estimated to have dropped by about 4 percent (seasonally adjusted)—a huge drop, according to the New York Fed, but not unusual in the wake of a hurricane. Employment rebounded about 1 percent last November. As the Fed noted, the sharpest job losses have occurred at restaurants, bars, hotels, and retailers. In normal economic rebounds from disasters, employment in those same industries tends to recover gradually over the course of the next nine to twelve months, while other industries bounce back more quickly. Of greater concern, there were also steep job losses in wholesale trade and health and education services, whereas sectors like professional and business services, manufacturing, construction, and finance did not experience significant declines; rather agriculture suffered severely: extensive crop damage has reportedly taken a huge toll on the island’s farmers and Puerto Rico’s $1 billion ag industry. 

In its report, the New York Fed found that mayhap the most problematic lingering issue has been widespread power outages across the territory: using satellite, nighttime maps to monitor the recovery across the island, the Fed determined the relative dimness throughout the island in October underscored “the severity and breadth of the power outage. The moderate improvement in November—more notable in the south and west than in the north and east—illustrates that the power situation has improved somewhat, though it remains fairly dire over much of the island.” The satellite mapping found that among the islands 78 muncipios, with populations ranging from 400,000 (San Juan) to just under 2,000 (Culebra), the change in brightness between August and November ranged from a 10 percent drop in Hormigueros, in the west, to a 74 percent decline in Humacao, on the southeastern coast. The areas with the quickest recoveries were found in the south and west of Puerto Rico, including Ponce and Mayaguez, whereas the eastern coast experienced the greatest fall in lighting. Thus, the Fed noted: “Puerto Rico’s local variation in night lights recovery closely parallels both the losses in employment found across the island and the trajectory of the storm—as Maria passed from east to west, the north received the stronger headwinds while the south and west experienced less severe tailwinds. A notable exception can be found in and around San Juan—despite being hit hard by the storm, these municipios fell near the middle in terms of light loss; as the capital and largest city in Puerto Rico, electricity may have been restored more quickly there than in more rural areas. 

In assessing the outlook for fiscal and economic recovery, the Fed noted that the steeper the initial loss of jobs (and population), the “longer it tends to take a local economy to recover.” Noting that Puerto Rico’s population had already been trending down at about 2 percent per year before Maria—a trend which, as we have noted, appears to be disproportionately reflecting younger and better educated Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland, the Fed noted “There has been much concern that the rate of population loss could accelerate sharply and create a vicious spiral: people emigrating, businesses closing, tax base shrinking, cuts in services and tax hikes leading to still more out-migration, and so on.” Nevertheless, the Fed wrote that “In spite of the storm’s devastating initial impact, that worst-case scenario for the island’s economy appears to have been averted—at least thus far.”

The insightful New York Federal Reserve insights come as the PROMESA Oversight Board on Wednesday deferred its deadline for Puerto Rico to submit its fiscal plans for the government and PREPA—a deadline already deferred last month—albeit PROMESA Chair Jose Carrion III, in his epistle to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, wrote that some fiscal plans could be delayed, while others could not.  The 10-year plan approved last March by the Oversight Board had projected sufficient fiscal resources to pay off 24% of the debt due; now, however, some observers are projecting that the Board will approve fiscal plans making no fiscal resources available for debt service for Puerto Rico’s $51.5 billion of municipal bond debt. In addition, the Chairman noted that the Board believes the “submission of the Commonwealth and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (‘PRASA’) fiscal plans should be similarly delayed to January 24, 2018 to ensure alignment of the assumptions and plans.” Wednesday morning, Gov. Rosselló had tweeted that his government was prepared to submit the fiscal plan that day.

Meanwhile, the deadlines for submission of the fiscal plans of the central government and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) were extended by two weeks after the Governor’s request to delay the date for submitting the new Fiscal Plan for PREPA. Upon this request, the Board also determined to postpone the other two fiscal documents in order for the evaluation and certification remain aligned in the agenda. In his tweet, Governor Rosselló Nevares wrote: “Our administration was ready to submit the Central Government Fiscal Plan today. The Oversight Board requested that we postpone submission for two weeks. If this is not the case, we are ready to submit the plan immediately.”

The Precipitous Chapter 9 Road to Recovery

January 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal, scholastic, and governing challenges of the city emerging from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery.  After years of failed leadership, financial mismanagement, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy which led to a state takeover; the state of Detroit’s Public Schools Community District remains vital to encouraging young families to move back into the city—especially in the wake, last month, of DPS failing to meet critical deadlines necessary to be eligible for vital state aid.  (In 2016, Michigan enacted a $617 million DPS bailout, as we have previously noted.) That action separated the district’s debt from a new district that could start fresh. Now, renewed state intervention would be a critical fiscal step backwards; thus it is fortunate that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti appears to be on top of the situation: he warns that disciplinary action will follow in the wake of DPS’ failure to meet these deadlines, making it critical the Superintendent can trust his staff. It is especially vital now in the wake of a second credit rating upgrade—with the report card having recorded, last month, that DPS that Detroit Public Schools had lost out on $6.5 million in fiscal assistance to whittle down its old debt, because DPS officials had failed to turn in paperwork homework on time, according to Superindent Vitti (Michigan reimburses its public school districts for debt loss under Public Act 86 if they met the Aug. 15 deadline; thus, Superindent Vitte, on Monday, reported: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state…After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Under the agreement, Detroit’s old district is still obligated to pay down its past operating debt; thus, the system’s failure to meet two deadlines last year cost not $6.5 million in aid from the state to help pay down its debt, but also a loss of public trust and confidence. As Superintendent Vitte noted last month: “At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state: After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities.” According to Superintendent Vitti, former CFO Marios Demetriou received the documents, but never completed them or sent them to the state. Even though the missed payout from the state is not expected to harm the day-to-day operations of the new district, it appears to curry a D grade; more importantly, it delays repayment of DPS’ legacy debt—or, as Superintendent Vitti notes: it is “unacceptable….The inability to submit the reimbursement form on time is a vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district…This is directly associated with the need for stronger leaders, systems, and processes. The individuals who were closest to the responsibility to submit the form will no longer be with the district.”

The unscholarly missteps appear to have contributed to ongoing doubts about the city’s fiscal acumen: The Motor City’s credit ratings remain deep in junk-bond territory, even after S&P Global Ratings last month upgraded Detroit’s credit rating from B to B+, while Moody’s last October had lifted its to B1 in the wake of the city’s launch of a new web portal to improve investor access to its financial data and bond offerings, Stephen Winterstein, a Managing Director and chief municipal fixed income strategist at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc. to note he was “really optimistic about what they have been doing in terms of disclosure and the investor website is definitely a move in the right direction: The road to recovery is a long one, and I think that Detroit is doing the right things.”

Since exiting from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history just three years ago last month, Detroit has issued debt twice: in August 2015 with $245 million of local government loan program revenue bonds, and in August 2016 with a $615 million general obligation/distributable state aid backed bond sale—albeit both issuances were via the Michigan Finance Authority, with the first enhanced with a statutory lien and intercept feature on the city’s income taxes. CFO John Naglick said that Detroit is also close to deciding on the underwriting team for a request for proposals it launched in October to find banks to lead a tender offer and refunding of its unsecured financial recovery municipal bonds with the aim of lowering its costs and easing a future escalation of debt service. For its part, S&P, in its upgrade, cited positive momentum the city is building with regard to stabilizing its operations and being better prepared to address future significant increases in pension contributions—or, as the agency noted: “We believe the city’s financial position is now more transparent compared with recent years, as is Detroit’s long-term financial strategy, which relies on fairly conservative growth assumptions…We also believe that the city has a stronger capacity to service its debt obligations than in years past.” Indeed, Detroit’s credit ratings are the highest since March of 2012, just over a year before Kevin Orr filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in July of 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit’s credit rating remains deep in junk territory and vulnerable to another recession, say market participants. Or, as Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial Bill Scheutte notes: “We still believe Detroit faces a long path that will require years of prudent decision-making from management and the avoidance of major economic shocks before its debt makes sense for investors looking for high-quality municipal exposure…The city still has an abundance of extremely high-risk characteristics and speculative-grade qualities that investors should be very cognizant of and understand what they are taking on.” Notwithstanding, Detroit appears to be on course to exit state oversight this year: it has presented deficit-free budgets for two consecutive years, enabling it to exit from oversight by the Financial Review Commission oversight; it ended FY2016 with a $63 million surplus; Detroit’s four-year forecast predicts an anemic annual growth rate of only about 1%; thus, any adverse public school news could have repercussions.

 

Getting Schooled on Disaster

December 15, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges of a city emerging from a quasi-state takeover—and report on continuing, discouraging blocks to Puerto Rico’s fiscal recovery.

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

The Steep Fiscal Road to Recovery. Detroit’s Cerveny – Grandmont neighborhood, where median household income has declined by 5 percent since 2000 and average household incomes are under $38,000—and median home sale prices are just over $51,000, this week was one of 10 areas in the Motor City yesterday was cited in a report, “Reset, Rethink, Rebuild: A Shared Vision of Performing Schools in Quality Buildings for Every Child in Detroit”  a study about neighborhoods, educational opportunity, and the conditions of public school buildings, as one of ten neighborhoods wherein it is nearly impossible to find a quality school. Indeed, the report determined that the problem is deeper than just those 10 neighborhoods: Only 20 percent of the children enrolled in a public school in the city, whether charter or traditional public, are attending a quality school: a discouraging, failing grade with implications for both assessed property values and Detroit’s budget. Chris Uhl, the Executive Director of the eastern region for IFF, which published the study, noted: “The fact that four out of five kids in this city” are not attending a quality school “is pretty horrifying to me…that…should catalyze action.” The report notes that nearly half of the space in school buildings in the city is underutilized. A key recommendation of the report was that greater coordination is needed between leaders of the Detroit Public School System and the authorizers of charter schools—presumably including the current U.S. Secretary of Education. (Currently, only Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are authorized to open new charters in the city, but there are a number of other authorizers with schools in the city.)  IFF’s recommendations are similar last week’s report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

In its report, the IFF identified quality schools using Michigan’s less than clear, but outdated quality schools color-coded accountability system–a system due to be replaced next year: a part of that old system provided for the assignment of five colors, based on how well students achieved academic goals. Of the city’s 178 general education public schools, just 2.4% received the equivalent of an A.  The report makes clear that the steep road back from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy requires a greater focus on the next generation’s future: schools good enough to attract families back into the city—attracted by a good school to enroll their children. Today, too few of them exist—or, as the report notes: Detroit needs nearly 70,000 more seats available in quality schools to ensure that every child has access to such a school. Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which funded the research, noted: “We’re not meeting the demand, which leaves us vulnerable to leakages: for students to leave the city to go to school in the suburbs.”

A Taxing Recovery? Just as Puerto Ricans were treated unequally by the federal response to hurricane devastation compared to Houston and Florida, so too there is apprehension that the tax “reform” legislation nearing completion in Congress—especially as there is growing apprehension that Congress could move towards adopting a territorial tax system for businesses—that is a new tax system which would treat Puerto Rico as a foreign country with respect to the numerous foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which operate there. Puerto Rico Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce Manuel Laboy Rivera is apprehensive that subsidiaries of U.S. corporations which receive favorable treatment under current federal law could find the emerging federal tax reform would impose a new 20 percent federal excise tax on all pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other products shipped to the mainland—that is a new, discriminatory tax—which would be in addition to the Jones Act provisions which render Puerto Rico unable to compete fairly vis-à-vis other Caribbean competitor nations—even as Puerto Rico is subject to the federal minimum wage and other federal regulations involving workplace safety and environmental protection. Indeed, last December, a bipartisan congressional task force had recommended changes in the tax treatment of the U.S. territory with the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth writing: “Puerto Rico is too often relegated to an afterthought in Congressional deliberations over federal business tax reform legislation. The task force recommends that Congress make Puerto Rico integral to any future deliberations over tax reform.” Among the recommendations: a modification of the federal child tax credit to include the first and second children of families living in Puerto Rico, not just the third as specified under current law; the report also recommended making permanent the so-called rum cover-over payments to the governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The task force, however, was divided with regard to whether to fully expand the eligibility of Puerto Rican families for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The report recommended that a domestic business production credit known as Section 199 that has covered Puerto Rico since 2006 should be maintained as long as Section 199 continues. Now, however, that credit has been targeted for elimination in the pending tax reform negotiations as they enter their final hours. Under the discriminatory treatment, for federal tax purposes, Puerto Rico is considered outside the U.S. tax code, even though for virtually all other issues the island is treated as a domestic part of the U.S. For the purposes of federal tax reform, however, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during the Finance Committee’s deliberations that Puerto Rico’s tax issues would be handled in separate legislation. So, it seems that for Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where 20% to 40% of all businesses are at risk of being shuttered in the wake of the hurricane and its ensuing devastation for the economy because of challenges ranging from the lack of electricity to loss of inventory, physical damage to their facilities, business interruption, and lack of capital; the message from Congress is to wait for next year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.) has informed reporters that he and other lawmakers are considering several options for Puerto Rico—especially in the wake of meeting with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting Representative in Congress, to discuss her request to consider making Puerto Rico an economic opportunity zone or empowerment zone—provisions adopted by Congress to abet economic recovery in hard-hit cities and counties. Thus, a change would be to treat Puerto Rico similarly—as if it were, gasp, a part of the United States for federal tax purposes and eligible for the same treatment. Likewise, tax reform could have been a vehicle for Congress to eliminate or reduce the discriminatory 20% excise tax on goods from Puerto Rico—a tax which undercuts Puerto Rico’s ability to compete with Cuba, and other countries in the region.

Even as the tax reform-deficit/debt increase legislation has swiftly moved towards the President’s desk, in New York, U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, presiding over Puerto Rico’s quasi-chapter 9 case, heard from attorneys for the Employees Retirement System and the Puerto Rico Oversight Board—with the critical issue what claims of Puerto Rico’s bondholders are valid. PROMESA Oversight Board attorney Steven Weise said the 2008 Financing Statements governing Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds did not provide bondholders any collateral, arguing that the bondholders’ written arguments quoted from legal rulings about “security agreements,” but that what is allowed in these agreements are not allowed in Financing Statements—adding that the system’s legal name changed in the last several years, but that bondholders had failed to properly follow-up on this development—a failure which meant, at least as he argued, that the system should not be legally obligated to pay interest on the municipal bonds—even as Bruce Bennett, representing bondholders, told Judge Swain the bondholders had a lien on employer contributions, based on multiple commitments, arguing that the 2008 Financing Statements gave the bondholders the lien. He said errors in the document were not of such gravity to merit undercutting to undercut the bondholders’ claims—and adding that the Spanish name of the system had not changed, and that the change in the English name was just a translation change—a change without legal significance. Moreover, he noted, that along with the Financing Statements, a parallel “security agreement” had been created in 2008 and this perfected the lien; further, he argued, the 2015 and 2016 Financing Statements also assured the bondholders’ lien on the employer contributions.

Where Are the Lights? U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the commanding General and Chief Engineer for the Corps reports that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is unlikely to be fully restored until the end of May, a far more pessimistic timeline that suggested by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who Wednesday stated he expects Puerto Rico’s electric grid to reach 75 percent of customers by the end of January—and 95 percent by the end of February—and 100 percent by the end of May. Adding to the dissonance, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority last month pledged service would reach 95 percent of customers by the end of this month—even though, as of Wednesday, just 61 percent of electricity had been restored.