With its creditors at its heels and its coffers depleted, Puerto Rico sought what is essentially bankruptcy relief in federal court on Wednesday, the first time in history that an American state or territory had taken the extraordinary measure.
The action sent Puerto Rico, whose approximately $123 billion in debt and pension obligations far exceeds the $18 billion bankruptcy filed by Detroit in 2013, to uncharted ground.
While the court proceedings could eventually make the island solvent for the first time in decades, the more immediate repercussions will likely be grim: Government workers will forgo pension money, public health and infrastructure projects will go wanting, and the “brain drain” the island has been suffering as professionals move to the mainland could intensify.
Puerto Rico is “unable to provide its citizens effective services” because of the crushing weight of its debt, according to a filing on Wednesday by the federal board that has supervised the island’s financial affairs since last year.
The total includes about $74 billion in bond debt and $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations.
While many of Puerto Rico’s circumstances are unique, its case is also a warning sign for many American states and municipalities — such as Illinois and Philadelphia — that are facing some of the same strains, including rising pension costs, crumbling infrastructure, departing taxpayers and credit downgrades that make it more expensive to raise money. Historically, Puerto Rico was barred from declaring bankruptcy. In the end, however, financial reality trumped the statutes, and Congress enacted a law last year allowing bankruptcy-like proceedings.
Puerto Rico has been in a painful recession since 2006, and previous governments dug it deeper into debt by borrowing to pay operating expenses, year after year. For the last two years, officials have been seeking assistance from Washington, testifying before stern congressional committees and even making fast-track oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court.
At the same time, Puerto Rico’s efforts to coax its creditors to agree to concessions have gone nowhere. Now the coming court proceedings will give Puerto Rico extraordinary powers to impose losses on holdout creditors unilaterally.
The island’s many creditors — whose lawsuits filed against Puerto Rico on Tuesday prompted the island’s request for court relief on Wednesday — are likely to receive far less of their money back than they want. Their predicament may turn out to be a cautionary tale for bond holders of other troubled states and cities. Puerto Rico’s case could show public workers and retirees that seemingly inviolate pension systems can be changed, too.
The next step is for the Supreme Court — specifically, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — to designate a federal district judge to handle the case.
The island’s lawyers may view some district courts as more likely to be favorable to them than others. Some creditors fear Puerto Rico will seek to have the case handled in the Southern District of New York.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, issued a statement Wednesday aiming to offer some reassurance, even as he sought the federal court’s protection. “We remain committed to holding good-faith negotiations to reach agreements with our creditors,” he said, adding that he hoped the court proceedings would “accelerate the process.” He appeared to be referring to the extraordinary power Puerto Rico will now have in court to unilaterally impose big losses on creditors.
Some of those creditors are furious.
“The Commonwealth’s proposal is not a credible starting point for negotiations,” Andrew Rosenberg of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, an adviser to the Ad Hoc Group of Puerto Rico General Obligation Bondholders, said in a statement. He said that moving the proceedings to bankruptcy court would put the situation in “free-fall.”
The creditors got a shock this year when Mr. Rosselló issued a five-year fiscal plan that allowed only about $800 million a year to pay principal and interest on Puerto Rico’s bond debt, far less than the roughly $3.5 billion a year it would cost to make those payments on time. The prospect of losses on that scale prompted some creditors to argue that most of the $800 million was rightfully theirs.
“That things are starting out in such a highly adversarial way strongly suggests this will be a long and contentious journey for Puerto Rico,” said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics who closely tracks activity in the municipal bond market.
Puerto Rico’s case will be the first ever heard under a federal law for insolvent territories, called Promesa, which was enacted last summer; the Obama administration had warned that a “humanitarian crisis” would ensue if Puerto Rico were not given extraordinary powers to abrogate debt. There is no existing body of court precedent for Promesa, but the island’s creditors — who range from hedge fund managers to mom-and-pop investors — are bracing for a titanic battle.
Despite the depth of the island’s troubles, many Republicans in Congress have opposed debt relief, saying that the island has long received big federal subsidies for its health system, public housing and other works. They said Puerto Rico should explain what it had done with that money before it got any more help.
Last week President Trump suddenly added fuel to those fires, saying on Twitter that there should be no “bailout” for Puerto Rico.