Late last month, President Obama selected an All-Star team of seven experts in finance and law to clean up the fiscal mess in Puerto Rico.
The new group, a team of law professors, scholars and businessmen known as the Independent Control Board, has the herculean task of restructuring the Island’s $72 billion debt, approving the government’s budget and stimulating economic growth.
The obstacles the board faces are huge. A default on the island’s junk bonds remains a very real possibility.
The government has no current ability to issue more debt. In the past, this was a key a key part of Puerto Rico’s fiscal mismanagement. It borrowed money by issuing municipal bonds to plug holes in its budget. The island can no longer ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul’, as the saying goes.
That’s not all. The dwindling tax base continues to erode. There’s the population drain from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland, a third of all residents are on some form of government assistance and an off the books economy hurts a government that needs every penny of tax revenue.
President Obama acknowledged their hopes and misgivings when the team was announced last month, saying that for the board to succeed, it “will need to establish an open process for working with the people and government of Puerto Rico,” according to the New York Times. He added that members would also “have to work collaboratively to build consensus for their decisions.”
According to the Times, senior administration officials said the board’s first substantive task would be to review the multiyear fiscal plan that Governor García Padilla’s administration is preparing, make sure it meets all requirements under the law and propose revisions as needed. Ultimately the board must certify the soundness of the fiscal plan, which is to be the bedrock of Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and other important measures to revive its economy.
“Time is of the essence,” Secretary Jacob J. Lew of the Treasury said. “The Puerto Rico government should bring together all of its resources to develop and submit a plan to the Oversight Board as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, the bond market is viewing the new federal control board as a positive for investors, according to a report from Bloomberg.
“Some of the better-secured bonds had a bit of a relief rally after the board was named,” said a senior investment strategist from BlackRock at a meeting last week. BlackRock manages about $124 billion of municipal debt, including Puerto Rico bonds.
It will clearly be an uphill battle for the new Independent Control Board. Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank, which served as the island’s financial adviser and lender before being placed in a state of emergency, failed to pay investors $9.9 million of interest due Sept. 1., according to another Bloomberg report.
The bank, whose regulator says is insolvent and faced a cash shortfall of as much as $1.3 billion in June, has been defaulting on debt payments since May.
Residents holding UBS Puerto Rico closed end funds continue to see illiquidity in their portfolios with declining interest payments. Many of the UBS investors are in desperate straits; they need the interest payments from these bond funds to pay their escalating living expenses.
With all these problems, the new Independent Control Board needs to perform like the 2016 gold medal winning U.S. Olympic basketball Dream Team to have a shot of getting the island going in the right direction. Any other outcome would be a disaster for Puerto Rico and its people.
Zamansky LLC are securities and investment fraud attorneys representing investors in federal and state litigation against financial institutions. For more information about Zamansky LLC, please visit http://www.zamansky.com.