Puerto Rico’s main water utility plans to sell $750 million of revenue bonds, the first debt offering from the financially struggling Caribbean island since it defaulted on securities sold by one of its agencies last week.
The deal may price as soon as next week. It will follow the Public Finance Corp.’s failure to make a full bond payment on Aug. 3 and come just weeks before the commonwealth is set to propose a plan for restructuring its $72 billion of debt. Melba Acosta, the island’s top debt chief, doesn’t foresee the water agency reorganizing its obligations in such a move.
The utility’s sale will test Puerto Rico’s ability to access the capital markets. Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla in June said the U.S. territory can’t afford to repay what it owes as the population falls and the economy struggles to grow. Its bond prices have dropped amid speculation about the scale of the losses facing investors.
“This is going to be a bumpy ride for the commonwealth,” said Joseph Rosenblum, director of municipal credit in New York at AllianceBernstein Holding, which manages $32 billion of municipal bonds, including Puerto Rico securities. He said investors need to consider “what’s the spillover to the value of my bonds?”
AllianceBernstein will determine whether to buy once it sees the prices that are offered, Rosenblum said.
The Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, called Prasa, will use the proceeds to finance capital improvements to help the water utility comply with environmental regulations. Its debt is repaid with money from customers’ bills.
The yields on Prasa bonds are some of the lowest among the commonwealth’s different agencies, reflecting their relative safety amid the island’s escalating crisis. Bonds maturing July 2042 traded Tuesday at an average 68 cents on the dollar to yield 8.2 percent, less than Puerto Rico’s general obligations, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The securities have risks and will be initially sold in denominations of $100,000, according to the bond documents. Prasa has been rationing water since May in parts of the island because of a drought, which increases expenses and lowers demand, according to the documents.
Puerto Rico public corporations could also win the power to file for bankruptcy, the bond documents warn. Island officials have been lobbying Congress to allow some agencies to do so.
“If the authority is unable to charge and collect rates that are sufficient to provide for debt service on its bonds and other indebtedness and meet its operating expenses, the authority may be unable to meet its debt and other obligations as they become due,” according to bond documents.
Puerto Rico and its agencies are reeling from years of borrowing to pay bills. Officials plan to present a debt-restructuring proposal by Sept. 1. If Prasa is able to sell the bonds, it won’t need to restructure its debt, Melba Acosta, president of the Government Development Bank and one of the officials crafting the island’s debt proposal, said Tuesday in a statement.
Prasa, which had almost $5 billion of bonds and notes, as of May 31, plans to raise rates by as much as 4.5 percent annually beginning in fiscal 2018.
The utility provides water to 97 percent of the island’s population and wastewater service to more than half. As residents continue to leave for the U.S. mainland, that has cut into demand for its services. Average monthly customer consumption decreased by about 6 percent in the year that ended in June.
Efrain Acosta, the utility’s finance director, will begin meeting with investors this week to discuss the offering, he said in a telephone interview from San Juan.
Some agency bonds have more than three times the revenue needed to cover debt-service and reserves sufficient for a year’s worth of principal payments, he said.
It’s hard to estimate at what coupon and yield the bonds would find enough buyers after the default and with the prospect of some entities gaining access to Chapter 9, said Daniel Solender, who helps manage $17 billion, including Puerto Rico debt, as head of munis at Lord Abbett & Co. in Jersey City, New Jersey. Whether the firm will participate in the sale depends on the pricing and structure of the deal, Solender said.
“It’s going to have to be an attractive price given the default,” Solender said. “It’s probably the credit that could get the lowest yield right now, but it’s still a test to see what the yield would be and if there are enough buyers.”
To sell $3.5 billion of general obligations in March 2014, the debt was priced with an 8 percent coupon at a yield of 8.73 percent, or 93 cents on the dollar.
The Prasa bonds also allow for any legal dispute to occur in a New York state or federal court, rather than in San Juan, according to bond documents. That’s a feature that hedge funds demanded in order to buy the general obligations sold last year.
Bank of America Corp. is the lead underwriter on a the deal, with a syndicate that includes JPMorgan Chase & Co., Popular Securities and Santander Securities.
Puerto Rico securities, including Prasa bonds, have been trading at distressed levels for two years on concern the island wouldn’t repay its debts on time and in full.
Prasa last sold bonds in 2012, Efrain Acosta said. The utility has been working on this borrowing for a year, he said.
“After a tough year for Prasa and Puerto Rico, we finally got the bond document out,” he said. “We have to close this chapter soon.”