Puerto Rico’s pain stretches to its lack of assets

By Cate Long
October 9, 2012

Juan Carlos Batlle, President of the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, does not like the way I characterized his comments at the Bloomberg State & Municipal Finance Conference last week.  Here is the transcript of the panel he appeared on, so you can read his comments for yourself.

My criticism of Mr. Batlle was that the citizens of Puerto Rico were getting very little benefit from the government’s auction of a 40 year concession to the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (LMM). But as I delved further, the situation became much more troubling than I had thought. It appears that Mr. Batlle and Puerto Rico are desperate to raise funds to pay down their massive debt load. Here is what Batlle said at the Bloomberg conference about leasing the LMM (from the transcript):

BATTLE [sic]: So we – for that we need to – I mean, we have I guess many people here know Puerto Rico’s situation in terms of her high debt load. So we have to tackle the issue and we have to start lowering our debt load.

[Former Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams]: Right.

BATTLE: So we’re using most of the money, and we did it the same with the toll road -

WILLIAMS: Right.

BATTLE: – we use most of the money to pay down debt.

The Puerto Rico Port Authority, which includes LMM airport, raised $669 million in bonds on December 16, 2011, and warned investors that the LMM lease arrangement must be completed. The Official Statement (page 5) warned investors that unless the deal to lease LMM were complete, then the Government Development Bank (GDB) would have to make principal and interest payments on the LMM bonds under GDB’s Letter of Credit.

Risk disclosures in these statements tend to be full of hyperbole, but a look at the balance sheet of the GDB is not reassuring. Intergovernmental lending by the GDB has increased rapidly in recent years. The bulk of GDB assets are loans to Puerto Rico municipalities and intergovernmental entities. These loans stood at $7.211 billion as of June 30, 2011, having increased from $5.675 billion in 2009 (page 9) (a list of GDB loans not including PR municipalities are on page 15). The GDB has rapidly increased its borrowing from the bond markets as public deposits at the bank have decreased (see chart above).

The GDB balance sheet is only as strong as the ability of the government units to repay their loans to the GDB. With Puerto Rico’s economy so weak, this would require very close monitoring.

Mr. Batlle seemed to struggle with the basic terms of the LMM deal at the Bloomberg conference. He described the upfront payment for LMM airport deal as $650 million, when it has been widely documented as being $615 million. But he is sticking to his story that the funds will be used to pay down debt.

BATLLE: OK. I – I will have to get back to you on the EBITDA number because I really don’t have it by heart.

But I – I – I can expand on the second question. We – right now the way that the – the structure is set we’re getting a – an upfront payment of $650 million. That’s on a – a payment at closing.

That – from that amount, $400 million have to be used to extinguish every debt related to the airport, not to the port authority. So that’s around $385 million in – in debt related to the airport.

So we’ll take that out and we expect to extinguish including about $505 million in debt out of $925 million that we have on the port authority. So … about 45 percent of that will be extinguished. We’ll have to restructure the remaining debt in a way that the port authority can – can sustain it, itself.

And that’s one of the main reasons why we did this restructure because the way it was set up right now our port authority, it just couldn’t – couldn’t handle the – the – the (inaudible) and we’ve been having to support it over time.

I still believe that the LMM deal is terrible for the citizens of Puerto Rico, and it gives way too much benefit to the investor group. But my bigger concern is that Puerto Rico’s debt is enormous, and it doesn’t have many assets left to monetize.

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I have never seem this type of journalism or analysis before. Again, Reuters readers deserve better. I have been in Puerto Rico’s airport and it is hard to understand how citizens can be worse off in terms of infrastructure conditions and economic development given that the PPP proposal represents a clear path towards airport development that requires compliance with Operating Standards (available online) on top of FAA Regulations. It is not a lie that the actual conditions are very poor and that there is stagnant passenger growth. Again, this “analysis” presented here it is extremely weak and not based on a real assessment of the present infrastrcuture conditions of the airport and trend of passengers.

Posted by Ahora | Report as abusive

Cate, there is a very strong probability that, because of this high debt load, regardless of who “wins” the elections in Puerto Rico next month, the 7% sales tax that began to be collected in Puerto Rico in 2006 will be increased to 8% some time during the next four years. Guess what that will do to the the island’s legitimate economy.

Posted by Uriel_I | Report as abusive

It’s also not clear to me whether this 40-year tie-up of PR’s air transportation facilities is in the long-term interest of the island.

The financials sent to the FAA show LMMIA’s net profit of $13 million only for 2009. Other years’ net profits are not shown. But 2009 was a low point of passenger traffic. PR will be giving up future net profits for a mere expectation that the new tenant will make the necessary investments in LMMIA to bring more business activity to the island.

Separately, contractual restrictions (Sec. 3.22 of the lease) on developing Ceiba’s airport into a major international airport seem anti-competitive. My proposal for Puerto Rico City, a world-famous entertainment city on Ceiba, requires the development of a world-class international aiport that would surpass LMMIA in economic importance.

San Juan is already too congested and constrained by poorly planned development. PR needs an entirely new, master-planned city to welcome and accommodate millions of new visitors with a state-of-the-art and seamless transportation system, including an airport with an integrated rail system.

LMMIA cannot accommodate major increases of new visitors. Under my proposal, LMMIA would remain the main airport for business and ordinary civilian travel. Yet Ceiba’s airport would become the primary airport for the untapped tourist market that PR has ignored for decades. The lease restrictions would create an obstacle for these plans.

Posted by DavidMartin | Report as abusive