Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Puerto Rico Financial Troubles Deepen

Bloomberg news reported this week that the President of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Senate was headed to Washington to meet with US legislators. The purpose of his visit is to lobby for an amendment to Chapter 9 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code, to allow the struggling Island to be covered under the same bankruptcy statute now available to US cities, counties and local districts.  A similar measure adopted by the Commonwealth in June 2014, the Puerto Rico Corporations Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, was struck down by US courts as unconstitutional this past February. US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has already informed the Island that a Federal bailout is not in the cards. 

With the news of Puerto Rico's approach to Washington breaking, it should be quite evident what the Island's plan is for resolving the debt crisis. The Commonwealth, along with the Teachers' and Judicial Retirement Systems are struggling with $37 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, high debt loads, a sluggish economy, falling tax revenue and a declining population.

For holders of the roughly $72 billion of bonds issued by the Commonwealth, this is a bit more salt in the wound. The struggling protectorate issued $3.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds in March 2014 to help stabilize its finances, constituting the largest municipal junk bond offering in history. The bonds, largely sold to hedge funds and offered at an initial price of 93 now trade around 80, resulting in a loss of 13% to those who purchased at the initial offering price just last year. Paulson & Co is reported to be one of the largest purchasers of the 2014 deal, along with DoubleLine. Commonwealth bonds are also owned by Fir Tree Partners. With the recent decline in prices, yields on Puerto Rico triple tax-exempt bonds are now higher than taxable bonds of Greece and Argentina.  

Revenue of the Island this year is projected to come in at $250 million below prior estimates, with a looming budget gap of nearly $200 million to be resolved by the end of the Commonwealth's fiscal year, this June 30. As a solution to the budget issues, legislators have proposed a $500 million reduction in spending and a hike in the Island's sales tax from its current rate of 7% to 11.5%. In addition, a bond payment of $630 million is due the first day of the new fiscal year, or July 1.  

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (or PREPA) faces budget and financing challenges of its own. The Island's main energy provider is negotiating with creditors to whittle down its $9 billion of debt and avoid a default on a $416 million bond payment, also due July 1. With no legal remedies available to it and all sides lawyered up, this looks to be heading for a messy and involved litigation.