October 4, 2017
Good Morning! In today’s Blog, we consider the President’s visit to address the fiscal, legal, physical, and human challenges to Puerto Rico.
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Physical & Fiscal Mayhem. President Trump, visited Puerto Rico yesterday (nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria, only 6.89% of the island has electricity, 22.54% of the telecommunications towers operate, 24% of the commercial flights operate, while the water and gas distribution problems persist in means of enormous damage to infrastructure. More than 9,000 people still live in shelters, according to official figures.). The President suggested the removal of Puerto Rico’s large debt so that Puerto Rico can to respond, short and long-term, to the emergency: “We have to work on something,” albeit adding Puerto Rico should be proud that only 16 died, unlike what he deemed “the real catastrophe” of Katrina. The devastating hurricane left some $90 billion in damage—on top of the $74 billion in debt Puerto Rico and the PROMESA Board (relocated to New York City) are confronting. The President added: “You have to look at the whole structure of the debt‒you owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’ll have to eliminate that. We’ll have to say good-by to that. I do not know if it’s Goldman-Sachs, but whoever it is, you can say goodbye to that. We will have to do something, because the island’s debt is huge.” The President’s remarks, however, coming as the PROMESA Board was meeting in New York City, created a question with regard to his intentions: did he mean the Administration is contemplating forgiving its debts? If so, what would that mean to the territory’s bondholders? Moreover, it is unclear whether the President even has such authority.
President Trump has called for Puerto Rico to have its crippling debt forgiven, describing the potential precedent as tough luck for the Wall Street holders of the debt, telling Fox New’s Geraldo Rivera: “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” with his comments coming in the wake of considerable political heat for one of his earliest tweets on Hurricane Maria, in which he had written that Puerto Rico was already suffering because of its huge debt burden, which liberals interpreted as blaming the victim.
The President told Puerto Rico officials they should feel “very proud” they haven’t lost thousands of lives like in “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” while adding that the devastated island territory has thrown the nation’s budget “a little out of whack,” with his comments coming as he touched down in San Juan amid harsh criticism of the slow federal response to the natural disaster, and after he had praised himself earlier in the day for his administration’s “great job” and “A-plus” response to Hurricane Maria, marking his brief, only visit to Puerto Rico since the storm ravaged the U.S. territory nearly two weeks ago. The President commented: “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this.” The President said this, then turned to a local official to ask how many people had died in storm. “What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.”
The hurricane, which killed at least 36, left millions without power and tens of thousands without access to drinkable water; it compounded a volatile economic situation in the territory, which is roughly $70 billion in debt. The President, at one point, stated that Puerto Rico had “thrown our budget a little out of whack.” President Trump, who in the past week has boasted about the federal government’s response to the disaster, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, told Govs. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico and Kenneth Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands: “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together,” adding, however, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been deeply critical of the government’s relief efforts and whom the President Trump has criticized on Twitter, also joined the President for his first briefing. The President said: “I think it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done, and people are looking at that…And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation. But now the roads are cleared, communication is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks,” adding his thanks to Governor Rosselló for positive comments he had made about the Trump administration’s work in Puerto Rico, saying, “He has said we have done an incredible job, and that’s the truth.”
Unsurprisingly, the President’s statements were also marked by the controversy he has had with the San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had earlier stated publicly that citizens were dying on the island for lack of federal assistance—in response to which the President had tweeted “poor leadership” demonstrated by the Mayor. Her comments came shortly after the President said she should be proud that only 16 Americans died, unlike the “real catastrophe” of Katrina. Actually, so far, the storm has taken the lives of 34 Americans, leading the Mayor to state, in the wake of the President’s visit: “This is not a joke.”
In a subsequent interview, the President yesterday declared he would eliminate Puerto Rico’s debts, stating he has many friends on Wall Street, noting: they will have to say good-by to their investments, “I don’t know whether it is Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, they will have to say good-by.” The President added, however, that what he had seen was not a “real catastrophe.”
While the cost of replacing and restoring critical public infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane Maria will largely fall to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, funding for other essential services, such as police and emergency rescue appears likely to remain Puerto Rico’s responsibility, according to FEMA experts—albeit something fiscally virtually out of reach: Puerto Rico’s fiscal capacity, beset by a shrinking population, spiking pension costs, and a looming health-care-funding cliff, now is confronted by hundreds of thousands of its citizens still without power and other basic necessities; its economic activity will take some time to restart, and it can expect severe interruptions in its tax collections for a time, according to Jim Millstein, a financial restructuring adviser to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration. Mr. Millstein adds: “On the revenue assumption side, you can assume they’re going to fall short: While they have a huge influx of FEMA funds over the next 6 months, those are for designated purposes, and not necessarily for running the government.”
He predicted that Puerto Rico could lose up to two months’ of tax collections, even as the government lacks resources to finance essential services and other government operations—likely leading to seeking critical assistance from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury—requests, however, already, unsurprisingly, opposed by the territory’s existing creditors, who are battling the PROMESA Board for payments on $73 billion in municipal-bond debt—or, as ACG Analytics has noted: a U.S. loan package “would, presumably, be structured to have priority” over payments to current bondholders.
The White House did, this week, act to ease the potential liquidity squeeze, waiving certain cost-sharing requirements for six months. Meanwhile, PREPA creditors offered $1 billion in new loans this week to jump-start rebuilding efforts, an offer which Gov. Rosselló’s fiscal advisers rejected as “not viable.” In Congress, meanwhile, no immediate action appears likely: Congressional leaders anticipate passing a second disaster aid package later this year with more specific directives with regard to how federal dollars sent to Puerto Rico should be spent, even as the Trump administration, facing criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria, has installed a U.S. Army commander to oversee federal relief efforts, and the PROMESA oversight Board has said Puerto Rico can afford to pay bondholders roughly a quarter of what they are owed over the next decade. While the Treasury Department had considered the option of authorizing so-called “super municipal bonds,” the concept found little support in Congress, where there is antipathy about setting any precedents for federal bailouts of financially struggling municipalities.