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Puerto Rico Collapse Shows Debts Seen as Ironclad May Not Be

  • Island using emergency, bankruptcy-like powers given by U.S.
  • Territories, like states, were never allowed to use bankruptcy
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Puerto Rico’s decision to use a U.S. court to escape from its debts cast few ripples in the state and local bond market, where prices rose Wednesday. But the action -- once inconceivable for a territory that didn’t have authority to file for bankruptcy -- sets a precedent that could resonate with struggling states in the decades ahead.

The island was extended the bankruptcy-like powers by Congress as a way to end an intractable crisis, despite the assurance once given to investors that it couldn’t be done. While state finances are largely on the mend and officials have dismissed any suggestion they would ever push lawmakers for the same legal recourse, the path ceded to Puerto Rico has fostered speculation it may one day look attractive to governments at the end of their financial ropes.