Puerto Rico Risks Historic Default as Congress Chooses Inaction

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A pedestrian walks along a street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 30, 2015.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Island may impose moratorium if GDB payment isn't delayed
  • Commonwealth owes GO investors $805 million on July 1

Even if Puerto Rico manages to strike a last-minute deal to defer bond payments due in three days, the commonwealth’s financial collapse is about to enter an unprecedented phase.

Anything short of making the $422 million payment that Puerto Rico says it can’t afford would be considered a technical default. More importantly, it opens the door to larger and more consequential defaults on debt protected by the island’s constitution, and raises the risk of putting efforts to resolve the biggest crisis ever in the $3.7 trillion municipal market into turmoil.

Nearly 10 months after Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said the commonwealth was unable to repay all its obligations, Puerto Rico has failed to reach an accord on a broad restructuring deal presented to bondholders. During that time the administration has delayed payments to suppliers, postponed tax refunds, grabbed revenue originally used to repay other bonds and missed payments on smaller agency debt. With its options drying up, no bondholder agreement in sight and Congressional action delayed, defaulting may be the next step for Puerto Rico.

“It’s a game changer because it starts an actual legal process with teeth on both sides that can finally advance settlement negotiations,” said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics, a research firm based in Concord, Massachusetts. “Pre-default negotiations are really not going anywhere. Post default might have a better chance.”

Puerto Rico and its agencies racked up $70 billion in debt after years of borrowing to fill budget deficits and pay bills as its economy shrunk and residents left the island for work on the U.S. mainland.

The island’s Government Development Bank, which lent to the commonwealth and its municipalities, is in talks with creditors to avoid defaulting on the $422 million that’s due May 1. The commonwealth may use a new debt moratorium law if it cannot defer that GDB payment, Jesus Manuel Ortiz, a spokesman for Garcia Padilla, said Wednesday during a press conference in San Juan.

While a GDB default would be the largest yet by Puerto Rico, a missed payment on its general obligations would signal to investors that the commonwealth is finally executing on its warnings that it cannot pay its debts. Puerto Rico and its agencies owe $2 billion on July 1, including a $805 million payment on its general-obligation bonds, which are guaranteed under the island’s constitution to be paid before anything else.

Historic Action

A general-obligation default would be the first by a state-level borrower since Arkansas missed payments on its bonds in 1933. That would likely trigger a restructuring of the commonwealth’s $13 billion of general obligations, which would be the largest-ever in the tax-exempt bond market.

“It would send a stronger message that what they’ve been warning about is actually real,” said John Miller, who manages $110 billion in municipal bonds for Nuveen Asset Management. “That over-indebtedness, that hasn’t gone away. So everything they’ve done in the last year is liquidity management to avoid lawsuits, which you can do for awhile, but it’s not a permanent solution.”

Puerto Rico securities are trading on anticipation that investors will need to take losses. Commonwealth general obligations with an 8 percent coupon and maturing July 2035 traded Thursday at an average 65 cents on the dollar, near the April 6 record low of 63.9 cents, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The average yield Wednesday was about 13 percent.

Prices on some Puerto Rico securities may drop by about 10 percentage points if the island were to default on its general obligations, Miller said.

A general-obligation default accelerates the issues, Fabian said.

“It forces the issues into court because the GO would be the first real security where bondholders have material recourse to sue Puerto Rico,” Fabian said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan directed members to craft a Puerto Rico bill by March 31. It has yet to move out of the House Natural Resources Committee as lawmakers and the Barack Obama administration work to alter the legislation. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said Tuesday that he’s “hopeful” the bill will pass the lower chamber by July 1.

Debt of the GDB, which is operating under a state of emergency to protect its dwindling cash, reflect a bigger loss than general obligations. Taxable GDB bonds maturing May 1 last traded March 11 at an average price of 31.9 cents on the dollar, up from 28.6 cents on Jan. 28, the lowest ever, Bloomberg data show.

“The way the GDB’s trading, investors believe that the May 1 payment will not be paid in full,” said Mikhail Foux, head of municipal strategy at Barclays Plc.

The GDB has filed with regulators to sell taxable securities that would mature May 2017, according to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s website. The notice doesn’t list the amount of the sale or the coupon.

Garcia Padilla declared the state of emergency for the GDB on April 9, limiting withdrawals from the bank only to fund health, public safety and education services. The GDB has $562 million of liquidity, according to the debt-moratorium law.

“Over the last year they’ve done a lot of juggling and they’ve kept the balls in the air, but without revenue growth, without economic growth, you can’t do that forever,” Miller said.

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