Puerto Rico Board Warns Deep Debt Cuts Needed to Steady Island

  • Panel shooting to have recovery plan in place by February
  • Federal panel gathered on the island for the first time

The federal oversight board tasked with pulling Puerto Rico out of a fiscal crisis said the island can’t count on additional aid from Washington and should brace for spending cuts and a “significant” reduction of its $70 billion debt to bondholders.

At a meeting in Puerto Rico on Friday, members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico agreed to shoot for having a financial turnaround in place by the end of January. After reviewing Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s proposed plan, board members said it relies too heavily on federal support. They warned they’ll have to make some tough decisions in the coming months to close Puerto Rico’s chronic budget deficits.

"Additional federal assistance appears unlikely," said Ana Matosantos, a board member, who previously served as California’s budget director. "Substantial, deep debt restructuring is necessary. Additional reforms and additional cutting is required."

Puerto Rico is veering toward the biggest restructuring ever in the $3.8 trillion municipal-bond market after defaulting on a growing share of its debt, which the commonwealth amassed through years of borrowing to pay its bills. Puerto Rico has skipped about $1.8 billion of bond payments since August 2015.

Puerto Rico won’t be able to meet its next major round of debt payments in February, according to Conway MacKenzie consultants, which provided an overview of the financial situation of the island. The government faces a budget deficit of as much as $3 billion for the fiscal year that ends in June, according to a financial analysis presented before the board on Friday.

The oversight panel’s meeting Friday was its first in Puerto Rico, after holding two previous sessions in New York. Security was tight at the venue -- at a hotel in the town of Fajardo, an hour from the capital San Juan -- with protesters outside holding signs in Spanish that read "Board Go to Hell!" and chanting "Yes to resistance. Not giving up."

Tight security as Puerto Rico’s oversight board meets on the island for the first time

The oversight board asked individuals and organizations to weigh in on Garcia Padilla’s proposed plan. Some argued the administration’s plan lacked specifics and fails to address the restructuring of debt.

"We’re are not going to be paid in five years, nobody expects that," said Jorge Irizarry, executive director for Bonistas del Patio, which represents about 60,000 local bondholders who hold about $15 billion of the island’s debt. "If haircuts were required, we could get there, but we need to see the right information, and we don’t think it’s there."

Garcia Padilla, who is set be succeeded by Ricardo Rossello, unsuccessfully sought to persuade bondholders to write down their debts, but had little leverage because the island is unable to file for bankruptcy. That bind prompted Congress in June to pass legislation to assist the island, which created the oversight board and allows for debt to be written off in court if creditors balk.

The island’s 8 percent coupon general obligations maturing in 2035 traded at 71 cents on the dollar Friday, hovering around the highest level since March, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The securities gained in value over the past few weeks as investors grew more optimistic that the island’s governor-elect Rossello will reach an agreement with bondholders.

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