Puerto Rico needs to prepare for its default

By Felix Salmon
February 5, 2014
Ryan McCarthy has a good round-up of Puerto Rico’s debt problems, which have now been exacerbated by S&P downgrading the island’s bonds to junk status.

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Ryan McCarthy has a good round-up of Puerto Rico’s debt problems, which have now been exacerbated by S&P downgrading the island’s bonds to junk status. (Moody’s and Fitch are certain to do so as well, in short order.) For a good one-stop overview of most of the big issues, I can recommend Nuveen Asset Management’s note, which includes this chart:

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What you’re seeing here is a vicious cycle: as debt problems pile up, economic activity decreases, which causes even bigger debt problems, even lower economic activity, and so on. Puerto Rico is now shrinking at a 6% annual pace, and that number is probably going to get worse before it gets better. The chances of the island’s economy actually growing at any point in the foreseeable future seem remote: indeed, the country has essentially been in one long and nasty continuous recession since 2006.

Puerto Rico has $70 billion in debt outstanding, all of it needing to be repaid with interest — and the simple fact is that there’s no way it’s going to be able to do that, if its economy continues to shrink and its most talented nationals continue to decamp for the mainland, where their prospects are much brighter. Labor mobility from Puerto Rico to the rest of the US, and particularly to Florida, has never been higher, while most of the migration in the other direction comes in the form of retirees, who are not exactly going to kick-start the economy. In fact, in terms of the labor force participation rate, they’re just going to make matters worse, on an island where only 1.2 million of the 3.4 million inhabitants are employed.

In many ways, Puerto Rico is similar to those other tourist destinations, Portugal and Greece — it’s highly indebted; it’s not particularly well educated (only half of Puerto Ricans over 25 have graduated from high school, and only a quarter of high-school graduates go on to get a bachelor’s degree); and it is hobbled by being unable to devalue its currency.

All of this is a clear recipe for default: if Puerto Rico can’t repay that $70 billion in debt, then it won’t. The only alternative is a bailout — but as Martin Sullivan explains, the US government has already extended a back-door tax-code bailout worth some $2 billion per year, and even that is both insufficient and constitutionally dubious. A more explicit bailout is not going to happen — not when Detroit is being left to deal with the ravages of bankruptcy on its own.

The good news is that the increasingly-inevitable default is not hugely harmful in itself. It’s not fully priced in: the funds owning Puerto Rican debt are going to take more losses, if they don’t sell now. And the insurers who have wrapped some $15 billion in Puerto Rican debt are going to have to get used to making a lot of coupon payments for quite a long time. But that’s their job. This is the way debt markets should work: if you lend money at high rates of interest to someone who can’t pay it back, then you have to understand there’s a pretty good probability of default.

The default will be messy, however, since there’s no chapter of the US bankruptcy code which encompasses Puerto Rico. A lot of different court cases will be held in a passel of different jurisdictions, and a lot of lawyers will get rich. In the end, everybody is going to have to take a nasty hit — including the island’s retirees, whose pension fund is woefully underfunded. From a legal perspective, there will be some fascinating arguments about sovereign immunity, and whether (and how) bondholders can attempt to enforce their contractual rights, absent any kind of overarching bankruptcy regime. In the end, restructuring terms could end up simply being dictated by Congress.

Still, the important thing is not the process, it’s the final outcome. If Puerto Rico manages to emerge from default freed of its massive debt burden, it will finally have a chance to start growing again. If it doesn’t, it won’t. The problem is that there’s no easy way of herding the bondholders and bond insurers, all of whom are going to want to maximize their financial recovery, thereby making Puerto Rico’s real recovery that much more difficult.

My advice to the Puerto Rican government, then, is this: start having quiet conversations in Washington about a piece of legislation which would give the island the legal freedom and ability to restructure its debts in a clean, one-and-done manner. Such a law would not be a bailout: it would involve no money flowing from DC to PR. But it would allow Puerto Rico to default on its debt and come out the other side, without the risk of years of legal chaos. While bondholders would squeal, at least they would get certainty. And Puerto Rico would get something much more valuable still — an opportunity to finally drag itself out of its horrible recession.

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