Thursday, July 23, 2015

Puerto Rico, Bankruptcy and a New American Conscience

Greece has stolen the headlines lately, as the European Union and the IMF try to find a solution to the country's mountain of debt and depression like economy. Unfolding on a smaller stage, though, is the looming bond default by the island of Puerto Rico.  A default, restructuring, or "re-profiling" of the Commonwealth's debt holds the potential for significant losses for the holders of the island's $72 billion of US tax-exempt bonds.  And no sooner did the island's Governor, Alejandro GarcĂ­a Padilla, publicly declare the debt to be "unpayable" last week , than did the island government fail to make payment on $93.7 million of bonds of its Public Finance Corporation.

Lawmakers in Washington, finally coming to grips with the realization that the Puerto Rico debt crisis is real, hurried a bill into Congress designed to amend the federal Bankruptcy Act, offering a special exception for the island. Puerto Rico, like the many states in the US that are imperiled by looming pension obligations and stagnant revenues, is not authorized to file bankruptcy under current law. Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Act limits filing to US cities, counties and special districts. Chapter 9 was the body of law under which the cities of Detroit, Stockton, Vallejo, Central Falls, Harrisburg and San Bernardino recently took refuge, as they attempted to squeeze their way out of contracted and publicly approved municipal debt.

Unlike those cities, however, where the outstanding bonds were largely held by municipal bond insurance companies, banks and large institutions, the massive debt of Puerto Rico is widely held, often directly by individuals. It is also held in varying degrees by an estimated 377 national municipal bond funds of which the public may be invested. When the bonds in question in prior bankruptcies were guaranteed by bond insurers or banks, it was surprisingly easy for public opinion (as well as that of the courts) to be complacent with default. After all, if there were losses, they deserved it. The bondholders were (mistakenly) considered part of the same Wall Street machine that many (also mistakenly) believe caused the Great Recession.

But the challenges with Puerto Rico bonds are far different, at least from a basis of public perception. Different that is, if you or someone in your family is invested in one of those 377 bond funds. An estimated $11 billion of the total Puerto Rico debt is held by these funds. An additional $45 billion is held by individuals directly, mostly Puerto Rico and US mainland residents. Perhaps unaware or unmoved by this subtlety, Chuckie Schumer, the venerable New York Senator, was quick to champion the cause of Puerto Rico bankruptcy, introducing the aforementioned legislation into Congress last week. True to his base, Schumer was likely more focused on the fact that New York is the largest home to people of Puerto Rico descent, outside the island itself. Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were also quick to jump on board, not missing the relevance of New York and Florida voters (the next most populated Puerto Rican state) to their political campaigns.

But this is politics. We try not to set the bar too high. More disturbing, though, is popular opinion. If you read the news media and follow the comments on blog posts, it appears most Americans, or at least those frequenting these site, support the idea of allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy. Let's face it, if the island can't pay, bankruptcy is far less costly to the taxpayer that a bailout.  As to Washington, it presents the potential for votes and no cost. That's the motherlode in politics. But the public, more broadly, appears to support this view as well.  Who cares if bond investors take one between the eyes?  Unless, of course, it's your eyes.

This raises the broader question, though, is America's willingness to change its bankruptcy laws for Puerto Rico an example of our changing social mores?  Is it now ok not to repay one's debts; that is, as long as it's someone else's money that's not being repaid? Has default become the new black?