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The market just hit a fresh all time high today which means another major default must be just around the horizon. Sure enough, the FT reported moments ago that a Puerto Rico default “appears increasingly likely” and is why creditors are meeting with lawyers and bankruptcy specialists (most likely Miller Buckfire, fresh from its recent league table success with the Detroit bankruptcy) on Thursday in New York. The FT cited a restructuring advisor, supposedly desperate to sign the engagement letter with creditors and to force the bankruptcy, who said that “the numbers are untenable” and “to issue new debt the yield would have to rise and where they can’t raise new money they will have to stop paying.”
The untenability of PR’s cash flows results from a “debt service burden that requires paying between $3.4bn and $3.8bn each year for the next four years. As doubts grow about the ability of the commonwealth to service that debt, the cost of doing so will inevitably rise.”
For Puerto Rico bonds, such an outcome would not be exactly a surprise, most recently trading at 61:
The rest of the story is largely known:
If Puerto Rico is forced to take that step, the effects will ripple through the entire $4tn municipal bond market. Because the debt is generally triple tax free, in a world of zero interest rates demand is high and it is distributed widely, including in funds that imply they have no exposure to Puerto Rico.
But yields have gone up nevertheless – and prices down – suggesting the markets are increasingly nervous about prospects for repayment. Estimates on how much of that debt is insured range from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of total issuance.
“Everyone thinks they can get out in time,” the restructuring adviser said.
Puerto Rico cannot really raise taxes much more, since the debt per capita is more than $14,000, while income per capita is almost $17,000, a ratio – at 83 per cent – that makes California, Illinois or New York – each at 6 per cent – models of prudence. Meanwhile, at 14 per cent, the unemployment rate is twice the national average.
What would make a Puerto Rico default more interesting is that as in the case of GM, political infighting would promptly take precedence over superpriority and waterfall payments. According to the FT, “any radical step, which the local government denies considering, would involve significant legal wrangling. Congress could step in and create an insolvency regime, lawyers say, since it has comprehensive jurisdiction, but that too would give rise to partisan fighting. The Democrats would say that pension claims have priority while the Republicans would uphold the priority of payments to bondholders, citing the constitutional sanctity of contracts.”
Of course, since in the US a bond contract now is only worth the number of offsetting votes it would cost, nobody really knows what will happen. And so, we sit back and watch, as yet another muni quake appears set to hit the US, in the process obviously sending the S&P to higher, record highs.
In the meantime, keep an eye on bond insurers AGO and MBI which have taken on water in today’s session precisely due to concerns over what a Puerto Rico default would do to their equity.
Municipal bond investors, a conservative bunch who want to avoid rollercoaster rides and cliffhangers, are getting frazzled. And they’re bailing out of muni bond funds at record rate, while they still can without losing their shirts. So far this year, they have yanked out $52.8 billion. In the third quarter alone, as yields were soaring on the Fed’s taper cacophony and as bond values were swooning, net outflows from muni funds reached $32 billion, which according to Thomson Reuters, was more than during any whole year.
Muni investors have a lot to be frazzled about. Municipal bonds used to be considered a safe investment – though that may have been propaganda more than anything else. Munis are exempt from federal income taxes, hence their attractiveness to conservative investors in high tax brackets. Munis packaged into bond funds appealed to those looking for a convenient way to spread the risk over numerous municipalities and states. While the Fed was repressing rates, muni bond funds were great deals.
Then came the bankruptcies.
The precursor was Vallejo, CA, a Bay Area city of 115,000 that filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2008 and emerged two years ago. But it’s already struggling again with soaring pension costs that had been left untouched. Jefferson County, which includes Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, filed in 2011 when it defaulted on $3.1 billion in sewer bonds, the largest municipal bankruptcy at the time [but it’s already issuing new bonds; read….. Municipal Bankruptcy? Why Not! And so The Floodgates Open].
Stockton, CA, filed in June 2012. Mammoth Lakes, CA, filed in July 2012. San Bernardino, CA, filed in August 2012. They were dropping like flies in the “Golden State.” Detroit filed in July this year, crushing all prior records with its debt of up to $20 billion. That’s $28,000 per person for its population of 700,000.
But Detroit is just a fraction of what is skittering toward muni investors: the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The poverty rate is 45.6%. Unemployment is 14.7%. The economy has been in recession since 2006. The labor force has shrunk 16% from 1.42 million in 2007 to 1.19 million in October. The number of working people, over the same period, has plunged from 1.8 million to 1.1 million, a breathtaking 39%.
Puerto Rico had a good run for decades as federal tax breaks lured Corporate America to set up shop there. But when these tax breaks were phased out by 2005, the companies went in search for the greener grass elsewhere. To keep splurging, the government embarked on a borrowing binge that left the now lovingly named “Greece of the Caribbean” with nearly $70 billion in debt.
That’s 70% of GDP, and for its population of 3.67 million, about $19,000 per capita, or about $64,000 per working person. And then there is the underfunded pension system. But unlike Detroit, Puerto Rico is struggling to address its problems with unpopular measures, raising all manner of taxes and cutting outlays. Not even the bloated government payrolls have been spared. Too little, too late? Given the enormous poverty rate and long-term shrinking employment, what are the chances that this debt will blow up?
Pretty good, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Last week, it put $52 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt under review for a downgrade – to junk. Moody’s litany of factors: “Failure to access the public debt market with a long-term borrowing, declines in liquidity, financial underperformance in coming months, economic indicators in coming months that point to a further downturn in the economy, inability of government to achieve needed reform of the Teachers’ Retirement System.” This followed a similar move by Fitch Ratings in November.
Alas, Puerto Rico has swaps and debt covenants with collateral and acceleration provisions that kick in when one of the three major credit ratings agencies issues the threatened downgrade. Which “could result in liquidity demands of up to $1 billion,” explained Moody’s analyst Lisa Heller. It would “significantly narrow remaining net liquid assets.”
Now Puerto Rico is under pressure to show that over the next three months or so it can still access the bond markets at a reasonable rate. If not….
Puerto Rico’s debt was a muni bond fund favorite because it’s exempt from state and federal taxes. Now fears of a default on $52 billion or more in debt are cascading through the $3.7 trillion muni market. But Puerto Rico isn’t alone. Numerous municipalities and some states have ventured out on thinner and thinner ice.
Default risks are dark clouds on the distant horizon or remain unimaginable beyond the horizon. And hopes that disaster can be averted by a miracle still rule the day. However, the Fed’s taper cacophony is here and now, and though the Fed is still printing money and buying paper at full speed, the possibility that it might not always do so hangs like a malodorous emanation in the air.
Taper talk and bankruptcies are a toxic mix for munis. Now add the lure of stocks that have become the official risk-free investment vehicle with guaranteed double-digit rates of return for all years to come. So muni-fund investors, tired of losing money, are seeking refuge in stocks. This has pressured munis further. The Bank of America Merrill Lynch master municipal index has dropped 2.8% and, unless a miracle happens, will end the year in the red. A first since 2008. Its index of bonds with maturities of at least 22 years has skidded almost 6% – though the Fed hasn’t even begun to taper.
The Fed’s easy money policies over the decades encouraged borrowing binges by municipalities and states. When the hot air hissed out of history’s greatest credit bubble in 2008, the Fed’s remedy, its ingenious QE and zero-interest-rate policies, blew an even greater credit bubble – kudos! As that credit bubble transitions from full bloom to whatever comes afterwards, the plight of muni bond funds is just the beginning.
The Fed’s policies of dollar destruction took on a sudden virulent form in 1970 – clearly visible against the Swiss Franc. And it’s still going on. When even the Swiss couldn’t handle it anymore, they too jumped into the currency war. Read…. Mother Of All Currency Wars in One Chart: Dollar Vs. Swiss Franc
Puerto Rico heads towards debt default – Americas – Al Jazeera English. (source/link)Puerto Rico’s economy is shrinking at an alarming rate. Officially the unemployment rate in the US territory is 13 percent, but some economists say it is three times higher.
The island is $70bn in debt, it has lost nearly 200,000 skilled workers in the past two years and could be heading towards default.
The US government says it is monitoring the situation. But without financial aid or a bail-out, the three and half million people that still live in Puerto Rico could be facing an even bleaker future.
Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher reports from San Juan.
If there is ever a case study about people who built up their reputation and then squandered it for first being right for all the wrong reasons, and then being wrong for the right ones, then Meredith Whitney certainly heads the list of eligible candidates. After “predicting” the great financial crisis back in 2007 by looking at some deteriorating credit trends at Citigroup, a process that many had engaged beforehand and had come to a far more dire -and just as correct – conclusion, Whitney rose to stardom for merely regurgitating a well-known meme, however since her trumpeted call was the one closest to the Lehman-Day event when it all came crashing down, it afforded her a 5 year very lucrative stint as an advisor. Said stint has now been shuttered.
The main reason for the shuttering, of course, is that in 2010 she also called an imminent “muni” cataclysm, staking her reputation once again not only on what is fundamentally obvious, but locking in a time frame: 2011. Alas, this time her “timing” luck ran out and her call was dead wrong, leading people to question her abilities, and ultimately to give up on her “advisory” services altogether. Which in some ways is a shame because Whitney was and is quite correct about the municipal default tidal wave, as Detroit and ever more municipalities have shown, and the only question is the timing.
However, as Citi’s Matt King recent showed, when it comes to stepwise, quantum leap repricings of widely held credits, the revelation is usually a very painful, sudden and very dramatic one. This can be seen nowhere better than in the default of Lehman brothers, where while the firm’s equity was slow to admit defeat it was nothing in comparison to the abject case study in denial that the Lehman bonds put in. However, as can be seen in the chart below, when it finally came, and when bondholders realized they are screwed the morning of Monday, Septembr 15 when the Lehman bankruptcy filing was fact, the move from 80 cents on the dollar to under 10 cents took place in a heartbeat.
It is the same kind of violent and anguished repricing that all unsecrued creditors in the coming wave of heretofore “denialed” municipal bankruptcy filings will have to undergo.Starting with Detroit, where as Reuters reports, the recovery to pensioners, retirees and all other unsecured creditors will be…. 16 cents on the dollar!… or less than what Greek bondholders got in the country’s latest (and certainly not final) bankruptcy.
On Friday, city financial consultant Kenneth Buckfire said he did not have to recommend to Orr that pensions for the city’s retirees be cut as a way to help Detroit navigate through debts and liabilities that total $18.5 billion.
Buckfire said it was clear that the city did not have the funds to pay the unsecured pension payouts without cutting them.
“It was a function of the mathematics,” said Buckfire, who said he did not think it was necessary for him or anyone else to recommend pension cuts to Orr.
“Are you saying it was so self-evident that no one had to say it?” asked Claude Montgomery, attorney for a committee of retirees that was created by Rhodes.
“Yes,” Buckfire answered.
Buckfire, a Detroit native and investment banker with restructuring experience, later told the court the city plans to pay unsecured creditors, including the city’s pensioners, 16 cents on the dollar. There are about 23,500 city retirees.
One wonders by how many cents on the dollar the recovery to pensioners would increase if the New York-based Miller Buckfire were to cut their advisory fee, but that is not the point of this post (it will be of a subsequent).
What is the point, is that creditors across all products, aided and abetted by the greatest credit bubble of all time blown by Benny and the Inkjets, will find the kind of violent repricings that Lehman showed take place whenever hope dies, increasingly more prevalent. And since retirees and pensioners are ultimately creditors, this is perhaps the fastest, if certainly most brutal way, to make sure that the United Welfare States of America is finally on a path of sustainability.
The only question is how will those same retirees who have just undergone an 84 cent haircut, take it. One hopes: peacefully. Because among those whose incentive to work effectively has just been cut to zero, is also the local police force. In which case if hope once again fails, it is perhaps better not to contemplate the consequences. For both Meredith Whitney, who will eventually be proven right, and for everyone else.
- Detroit pension cuts ‘function of mathematics’ -investment banker (uk.reuters.com)
- Judge allows banker’s Detroit bankruptcy testimony (crainsdetroit.com)
- Matt Taibbi: Wall Street hedge funds are stealing public workers’ pensions (rawstory.com)