Puerto Rico has the population of Oklahoma and a gross domestic product smaller than Kansas’s. It also has more debt, $70 billion, than any U.S. state government except California and New York. This fact and the reasons behind it help explain why the island has tumbled over a fiscal cliff. And why the resulting dismay extends to investors far beyond the island’s borders. It’s a tale of financial mismanagement, Wall Street complicity and good intentions gone awry.
In February, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service lowered the ratings on Puerto Rico’s bonds to below investment grade, saying the territory is low on cash and high on debt. Because of a quirk in the tax laws, Puerto Rico’s plight affects most people with a mutual fund invested in the $3.7 trillion U.S. municipal bond market. Unlike the bonds of most states and municipalities, Puerto Rico’s are exempt from local, state and federal taxes everywhere in the U.S. As a result they are held by 70 percent of muni funds, according to Morningstar Inc. The competitive advantage made it easy for Puerto Rico to double its debt in 10 years by selling bonds to plug annual budget deficits and pay for operating expenses — the combination that brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s.
Wall Street smoothed Puerto Rico’s path to fiscal debacle. After the commonwealth adopted a sales tax in 2006, investment banks worked with officials in San Juan to create new bonds backed by a portion of the tax. Banks including UBS, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs reaped $880 million in fees to manage Puerto Rico’s $120.3 billion of bond sales since 2000. These helped the government, which employs almost 30 percent of the workforce, to put off cuts. Puerto Rico paid dearly to tap the market on March 11, issuing $3.5 billion of junk-rated bonds at 8.7 percent interest to give the island enough cash to pay its bills through 2015. Like U.S. states, it can’t file for bankruptcy. Puerto Rico’s special tax status dates to 1917 and the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Jones-Shafroth Act. The law also granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, established a bill of rights and separated powers among three branches of government. Puerto Rico, ceded to the U.S. in 1898 after a war with Spain, has relied for 50 years on this and other tax breaks like federal corporate tax reductions to drive its economic development. The incentives attracted pharmaceutical, textile and electronics companies. The U.S. phased out the incentives from the mid-1990s to 2006, contributing to the loss of 80,000 jobs. Since 2006, Puerto Rico’s economy has contracted every year except one and its poverty rate is now almost double that of Mississippi, the poorest state. Official unemployment is 15.4 percent and crime is soaring. As jobs disappear, more Puerto Ricans are emigrating. Population is heading toward a 100-year low by 2050.
Puerto Rico faces the difficult prospect of boosting its economy while fixing its public finances. Since taking office in 2013, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has moved to raise taxes, restructure public pensions and reduce the deficit. The government is also doing what it can to defend its pharmaceutical economic base while trying to boost biotech research and expand ecotourism. Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Center for a New Economy, a think tank in San Juan, says the government needs to cut spending on services, reduce business tax credits and increase investment in education, infrastructure and technology.
The Reference Shelf
- The Federal Reserve Bank of New York made recommendations for improving Puerto Rico’s competitiveness in 2012.
- Puerto Rico presented its economic development and budget plans in presentations aimed at potential bond investors from 2006 to 2013.
- The Center for a New Economy, a San Juan think tank, collects ideas for economic reforms.
- National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., a bond insurer, reports on risk factors and trends affecting Puerto Rico.
- Bloomberg News coverage of Puerto Rico.