Puerto Rico Faces Default, Government Shutdown On July 1

Late last month we outlined what is an increasingly desperate fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico. The commonwealth faces a July 1 payment of $630 million on its GO bonds and without furloughing some public sector employees, it’s not clear that the payment can be made, setting up a possible default.

“They really aren’t going to have the cash. There’s no tax you can legislate today that will generate enough income by the time you need it,” Sergio Marxuach, public-policy director at the Center for a New Economy in San Juan, told Bloomberg earlier this month.

In total, Puerto Rico owes some $73 billion, the result of persistently covering deficits with debt even as economic activity continued to slow. On the heels of last month’s failed attempt to push through tax reform, lawmakers and Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla are now scrambling to pass a new proposal that calls for a sales tax increase and $500 million in spending cuts as part of a 2016 budget which Puerto Rico desperately needs to pass by a July 1 deadline in order to resurrect a $2.9 billion oil-tax bond offering. The proceeds from the proposed deal would go towards repaying a loan from the Government Development Bank which may run out of money by the end of September if the new issue doesn’t materialize. 

Budget cuts aren’t very popular these days, especially among students, as the recent protests in Montreal and Quebec make clear. In essence, the anti-austerity bug has spread outward from Europe and was on full display last week in Puerto Rico when college students took to the streets of San Juan. 

Here’s a clip:

As unpopular as the current set of measures looks to be, Bloomberg reports that further belt-tightening will likely be needed to bring the situation under control. Here’s more:

Official projections of economic growth haven’t panned out. An index tracking monthly economic activity has registered 27 consecutive year-over-year declines. March unemployment, at 11.8 percent, was more than double the U.S. rate. With revenue well below forecasts, the commonwealth has a $191 million budget gap it must close by June 30. Procter & Gamble Co. plans to close its only plant on the island within 12 months, Jeff LeRoy, a spokesman for the consumer-product maker, said in an interview. The facility employs 230 people.

 

The May 14 proposal by Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla and legislative leaders to cut spending also would raise the sales tax temporarily to 11.5 percent from 7 percent. Even if the legislature approves the measure, it won’t be enough. The commonwealth, the largest employer on the island, needs to shrink the government and boost private-sector jobs, said Secretary of Economic Development Alberto Baco Bague.

 

The island must exercise financial self-reliance as yields on its general obligations surpass 10 percent, effectively blocking access to capital markets. The Government Development Bank, which lends to the commonwealth and its localities, may run out of cash by Sept. 30 unless it can sell $2.9 billion of oil-tax bonds, according to its latest quarterly filing. The filing said the government may place a moratorium on debt payments in fiscal 2016 if it can’t cut spending or generate more revenue.

If lawmakers are unable to pass a 2016 budget by the end of next month, Puerto Rico faces a government shutdown, but perhaps more importantly, will likely have trouble convincing hedge funds to purchase its bonds. The commonwealth has become increasingly reliant on hedge fund financing as traditional investors fear a looming default. 

For his part, Jeff Gundlach is optimistic. The DoubleLine chief doubled his Puerto Rico GO bond holdings in Q1, but later told Reuters that the position still did not qualify as a "big bet." Perhaps that's a good thing, because as the following chart shows, the market seems to believe the commonwealth is about as credit worthy as Greece.