H.R. 5278: PROMESA
INTRODUCED: May 18, 2016
PASSED HOUSE: Jun 9, 2016
(Prognosis:11% chance of being enacted)
ENACTED & Signed by the President: Jun 30, 2016
THE MONEY BOX
by Issac Rauch
How a Broke Little Island Beat the Hedge FundsPuerto Rico got the debt relief legislation it wanted while some of the most powerful forces in finance got stiffed. What happened?
In 2015, the hearts of hedge funders fluttered when former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote, in a Washington Post op-ed on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, “How things play out from here will be an important test of whether Washington is, as some allege, controlled by financial interests.” For anyone with deep pockets and an interest in maintaining leverage over the Puerto Rican government, killing congressional debt relief legislation must have looked like a slam dunk. To give Puerto Rico the option to legally restructure its debts, Congress would need a groundswell of bipartisan action—all to help poor, nonvoting quasi-citizens in an ugly election year. How would you have bet?
Yet, on June 30, Obama signed into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (or PROMESA, which means “promise” in Spanish), handing a rare loss to a group of powerful hedge funds—along with banks and public mutual fund companies Franklin Templeton and Oppenheimer & Co.—that saw in Puerto Rico’s slow-burn fiscal crisis an opportunity for profit. In doing so, Congress preemptively decided what was shaping up to be a multiyear war between Puerto Rico and its creditors, giving leverage to Puerto Rico’s previously overmatched government and pulling the rug out from under the funds doing the financial equivalent of turning the commonwealth upside down, shaking hard, and collecting the coins that fell out of its pockets. How did such a thing happen? How did some of the most powerful forces in American finance lose to a broke little island?
A quick refresher on government borrowing: Public authorities, towns, cities, states, our federal government, and sovereign states the world over frequently issue debt (i.e., borrow money from investors) for needs ranging from, say, building an aqueduct to bridging budget gaps between now and tax day. Once public entities decide when and how much they want to borrow, a bank steps in to underwrite the bonds, determining how to sell them, and how to fill in the blanks in the book-length prospectuses that accompany every bond issuance. The bank finds customers for the bond sale—anyone from labor union pension funds looking for a safe place to invest members’ dues, to hedge funds using municipal bonds to balance complex, algorithmically risk-weighted portfolios—and the bonds continue to trade on the secondary market just like stock, with the issuing government’s fiscal health driving the undulations in a bond’s price.
Apart from some legal quirks (no taxes!), Puerto Rico’s bonds were no different. What does make Puerto Rico’s bonds different from the bonds of every state-level issuer since 1933—when Arkansas defaulted—is that Puerto Rico mostly isn’t paying them back. The commonwealth’s government told the world mid-2015 that it couldn’t pay its debt and proved it over the intervening year, defaulting on select issues of bonds on multiple occasions before July 1, the day after PROMESA passed, when it managed to make principal and interest payments on just over half the $2 billion that had come due that day. The latest budget proposed for Puerto Rico’s next fiscal year includes no allotment for debt service payments. The Treasury estimates that hedge funds own about $23 billion, or more than one-third, of Puerto Rico’s external debt. That sound you hear is teeth grinding in midtown Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut.
The congressional debt relief bill puts a stay on litigation stemming from the defaults on Puerto Rico’s bonds: Those hedge funds and mutual funds, who before PROMESA and after informal negotiations failed, raced to court to argue Puerto Rico was legally required to pay its debts. It also creates a federally appointed fiscal oversight board to oversee Puerto Rico’s budgeting for the next few years and mediate a period of negotiations with creditors, in which Puerto Rico will ask the parties that lent it money—or the parties that acquired the debt securities that represent those loans—to accept significant haircuts and extended repayment schedules.
Isaac Rauch was probably misled to say some people of Puerto Rico did not want the board. That is what the powerful financial forces wanted the media to believe to help their cause. However, all polls revealed that over 90% of the people want the Fiscal Board. Grassroots mobilized with faxes, phone calls, social media, letters and took their message to Washington in support of PROMESA.
In his statement during the US Senate vote, Sen Hatch said:
This is the first time that I know of, in the history of Puerto Rico, that the people were empowered and in spite of having to fight against the most powerful force in the Finance worldand all the political parties in Puerto Rico, Unions, etc...the people won this battle after using every free or almost free method to inform members of Congress of our position. The US Citizens of Puerto Rico are ecstatic over the positive results.
Miriam J. Ramirez MD (MJR)