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Puerto Rico default adds to island's economic woes

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 - 07:02
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Puerto Rico's default on a debt payment for the first time will leave the island closed out of the US financial markets, deepening what is already a serious economic crisis.

[SAN JUAN] Puerto Rico's default on a debt payment for the first time will leave the island closed out of the US financial markets, deepening what is already a serious economic crisis.

Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla paid out just US$628,000 of US$58 million in Puerto Rico Public Financing Corporation (PFC) debt that came due August 1, pleading a lack of liquidity in the recession-wracked US commonwealth.

The default impacts mainly Puerto Rican creditors, in particular the island's savings and loans. But some bonds were sold in the US market, and the government's failure to meet the debt payment is certain to impact its ability to raise funds in future, analysts say.

"It closes the door to financing for the government and its corporations in the (US) market," Jose Joaquin Villamil, an analyst with Estudios Tecnicos in San Juan, told AFP.

This month's missed payment is just the tip of a US$72 billion dollar mountain of debt that Garcia Padilla has declared to be "unpayable."

Debt ratings agencies had already downgraded Puerto Rico bonds to junk status, so what was already a difficult borrowing environment has just been made much worse.

Garcia Padilla, who is negotiating with creditors, is expected to present a restructuring plan by the end of the month.

The aim, he has said, is to rescue Puerto Rico from a "vicious cycle of contraction, emigration, austerity and taxes."

Victor Suarez, the governor's chief of staff, explained that the government defaulted on the PFC bonds because it needed to give priority to holders of government bonds, known as GOS, who are owed more than US$100 million.

Meanwhile, the crisis is making life more difficult for the island's 3.5 million people. At 12.4 per cent, unemployment is more than double that on the US mainland, and a massive out-migration is underway, eating away at Puerto Rico's tax base.

The situation has been years in the making. The commonwealth's finances were dealt a crippling blow in 2006 with the loss of federal tax breaks for US companies with operations on the island.

It has been in and out of recession in the eight years since. As economic activity shrank, the government papered over budget shortfalls with fresh borrowing.

LIQUIDITY CRUNCH

Puerto Rico's savings and loans, the principal holders of Public Financing Corporation bonds, also have been weakened by the default, although their holdings are not large enough to threaten their survival, said Villamil.

"The liquidity problem is real, and exists for many reasons," said Mr Villamil.

In his view, the island's legislature is at least in part to blame for the crunch.

Last year, it approved a four-cents a litre gas tax, but rather than earmarking the added revenues for servicing the public debt, as the government intended, it diverted it to other spending.

The tax could have allowed Puerto Rico's highway authority to repay a US$2.2 billion debt to the government development bank BGF, thereby averting the current crunch.

The legislature did approve an unpopular 11.5 per cent increase in the sales tax, which went into effect July 1.

BGF's president, Melba Acosta, said on Tuesday that the decision not to honour the debt obligations was due to both the liquidity problems and the government's need to maintain basic public services.

The White House has ruled out a financial bailout, and while it supports giving Puerto Rico the ability to seek bankruptcy protection to restructure its debt, as Detroit has done, any decision to do so rests with the US Congress.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, decried the damage done to the island's image and reputation, which could take years to repair.

"One should feel great shame. Puerto Rico's good name, its credit is tarnished," said Pedro Pierluisi, head of the New Progressive Party and the island's resident commissioner to the US Congress.

AFP