Plans of Debt Adjustment

April 16, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we return to the Motor City, Detroit, a city, which, to some extent, was the touchstone of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to observe how the process of debt adjustment, as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes fared. Then we journey south to consider an assessment by the Capitol Hill publication, Politico, of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

A Motor City Perspective from a Battle Veteran. Former CIA Director and U.S. Army General David Petraeus, speaking at the end of last week in Detroit at Wayne State University, likened Detroit’s rebound from the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy to be like a “Phoenix rising from the ashes,” suggesting that the United States should emulate the Motor City’s multifaceted template for success. His speech, titled, “National Security: How safe are we at home and around the world?” was part of Wayne State’s Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society’s 10th anniversary lecture series. The issue, or question, Gen. Petraeus told the audience with regard to: “What in the World is Going On?” related to: “Detroit is a city that hit rock bottom that is bringing you back.” Thus, General Petraeus asked: “The question is: how to do that for the entire country?” Telling the audience: “In Detroit, where do you start when you have a city that’s crumbling at its core? Do you start with policing? Urban renewal? Economic revival? Education? It takes all of the above.” Gen. Petraeus said the biggest threats facing the U.S. are “countries that aren’t satisfied with the status quo and want a change…such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea; Islamic extremists; cyber threats; and increasing domestic populism.”

Gen. Petraeus added: “We really need to come to grips with the legal pathway of unskilled workers who are hugely important, particularly to the agriculture and hospitality industries; we need to come to grips with those who are already here but not legally, particularly the DACA children.”

But, as the fine editorial writer for the Detroit News, Bankhole Thompson, writing about a forum over the weekend at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, billed as a forum to focus on the Motor City’s recovery, featuring Mayor Mike Duggan, JP Morgan Chase Chair Jamie Dimon, and Peter Scher, the bank’s global head of corporate social responsibility,  the event “appeared more like a carefully orchestrated public relations and ‘job well done’ session for JPMorgan Chase, or at best the case of a bank issuing its own report card about its involvement in the city’s recovery,” adding that, “poverty, the greatest challenge to the city’s revival, was not given the deserving spotlight: They referenced the Mayor’s race speech last year without in-depth analysis about it. Listening to the entire exchange about Detroit, one would think the speakers were talking about a completely different city, not the one which is today the headquarters of poverty in America, as the 2016 Census shows Detroit leads the nation among the largest cities with poverty at 35.7%.” Mr. Thompson added that if one were unfamiliar with the crime index of Detroit, one would have been “hard-pressed to believe that the three-person panel led by Mayor Duggan was talking about a city that is now No. 1 in violent crime in the nation,” asking: “How can a discussion about rebuilding a city like Detroit not first acknowledge the problem of poverty, which is central to achieving even-handed recovery?” Wondering how if the city’s leaders continued to shy away “from the proper diagnosis, how can the problem be solved?” While expressing appreciation for the role that JPMorgan Chase and other entities are playing by investing in certain targeted neighborhoods, he wrote: “But the fact remains that while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation…As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by ZIP codes…Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. Referencing former President Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University commencement address from 1965, he wrote: “ ‘But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings,’” noting that the former President’s comments capture the “current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods,” Adding that the panel “failed to delve into the spectacles of destitution and misery that have created the ‘two Detroit’ phenomenon.” He wrote: “Detroit’s leaders must first acknowledge that poverty is real, not a myth, and then work assiduously to address it. An omission like this often leaves some people with this question: who is the city coming back for?”

Beating the Odds: A grim Assessment of FEMA. The Capitol Hill periodical, Politico, in an investigation by writer Danny Vinik “How Trump Favored Texas over Puerto Rico,” noted that the federal government had significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, noting that its cleanup plan, which had been developed four years ago by a FEMA contractor in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and “projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a ‘high-end’ Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode,” adding that, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at Politico’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that Puerto Rico’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed by the force of such a storm; rather, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. Moreover, the FEMA analysis omitted discussion of the U.S. territory’s fiscal instability, as well as the capacity of PREPA—or, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria…They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.” Nevertheless, he added that disaster-recovery experts determined that the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage. Mr. Vinik noted that Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, who was serving as chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned: “They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support: That should have been flagged,” with experts describing that omission as significant, because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, in significant part to assist federal, state, and local entities to better understand and coordinate their responsibilities. He found, mayhap ironically, that FEMA’s plan “did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be ‘limited’ as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that ‘hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.’” Moreover, he found, FEMA’s plan also found that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south, while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines which transverse Puerto Rico’s steep terrain would render “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy: It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.” Indeed, he noted that Jeremy Konyndyk, the former key USAID disaster response official during the Obama administration, had described FEMA’s plan as “reasonably good,” that it “presciently anticipate[d] many of the issues that emerged in the Maria response.” However, Mr. Konyndyk and other disaster response experts suggested that the plan contained some critical omissions, especially its heavy reliance on state and local officials to respond to the storm. The FEMA plan had determined that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help with temporary power restoration, but “cannot fix transmission lines,” since such a job “is the responsibility of the owners.” However, after Maria struck, the Corps was tasked with repairing the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, a result of financial and management difficulties at PREPA. Thus, the plan’s over optimistic assumptions that temporary repairs to critical infrastructure, such as the power system, would be complete soon after the storm proved to be gravely off.

The plan also projected that private sector companies would move swiftly to restore telecommunications, or, as the report described it: “There are minimal expectations that federal assistance would be required to restore the infrastructure during the response and recovery of a storm,” adding that, if communication systems were not swiftly fixed, first responders could use satellite phones instead or rely on mobile communication trucks delivered to the island. The reality, as we have previously noted, however, is that Puerto Rico’s communication system was wiped out, leaving telecommunications companies in the midst of such serious infrastructure disruption to slowly repair the infrastructure, unaided by rolls of paper towels tossed by President Trump as Puerto Rico’s leaders and mayors desperately sought to communicate with FEMA and other first responders. Indeed, as Mr. Vinik wrote: “Local officials described limited communications as one of the biggest challenges in the first week after the storm.”

Noting the importance of having a FEMA plan on a Caribbean island subject to violent hurricanes, Mr. Vinik, wrote that in a March interview at FEMA’s joint field office in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s top official overseeing the response to Hurricane Maria, had, instead downplayed the importance of the plan—telling him: “A plan is good when you don’t have all the ground truth about what your requirements are going to be. You use that someone thought about this, someone took the time to think it through and said it’s likely that this is what’s going to happen. And then you execute the plan.” In the aftermath of Maria, FEMA is revising its hurricane plan for Puerto Rico, and, a day late and many dollars short, FEMA is creating teams to help Puerto Rico municipios to update their own plans, using new assumptions about the risks and damage from a catastrophic storm. 

Who Is on First? In its revised, quasi plan of debt adjustment, Puerto Rico has increased its projected five-year cash surplus to $7.36 billion; the plan, however, does not include layoffs or pension cuts that have been urged by the federally-appointed PROMESA oversight board—raising, once again, the difficult governance issue with regard to how the elected leaders of Puerto Rico and the federally appointed oversight board will reach any consensus after months of seeking to negotiate a consensual plan, with Governor Rossello vowing to oppose the PROMESA Board’s proposed 10% cut in public pension payments and a number of proposed labor reforms. In addition, the Governor has insisted he can achieve the Board’s requested level of spending cuts without layoffs in the public sector workforce—something with regard to which the Board has remained doubtful. Now, with the Board’s April 20th deadline looming this Friday, the question will be whether there might be still another deferral to continue talks with the Governor, albeit, there appears to be growing speculation that the Board will act to approve or disapprove this week.  

The Fiscal & Physical Challenge. In the real world, for any meaningful fiscal recovery, any plan agreed to—or imposed by the Board, will have to address the trials and tribulations of one of the nation’s oldest municipalities, Cidra, a municipio of about 44,000, which is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Founded in 1795, the city has, in the wake of Maria, lost hundreds of jobs: chains of adverse events which are outside of local control demonstrate the complexity of assessing what kind of fiscal recovery plan could actually work. In February, PepsiCo announced the closure of its plant in the city—and the dismissal of 200 employees, after operating there for 30 years. Pepsi reported its decision was not related to Hurricane Maria or its location in that town, but with its strategy of optimizing global network and long-term growth. Whatever the reasoning, for Cidra, the bottom line will be the loss of jobs and the reduction of tax revenues for the municipality and for Puerto Rico: it will mark another knock on Puerto Rico’s fiscal base—of which manufacturing constitutes 20% of the island’s fiscal base. The closure will translate into losses of jobs, both private and public, reduced license taxes, corporate taxes, and individual taxes—meaning the loss of 70% of license revenues and 40% of the municipal budget. That, in turn, is forcing municipal layoffs: Cidra intends to dismiss 200 employees from a payroll of 526 representing a potential savings of $10.5 million a year—and a reduction in the city’s municipal budget, from $18 million to $11 million for FY2018-2019.