Last week the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page criticized the investors who lent money to Puerto Rico as being naive about political risks and suggested that they more or less deserve the massive haircuts currently being proposed. However, this is a puzzling perspective that misconstrues the legal issue at hand—and bodes poorly for the next government that gets in such a mess.
Disregarding the Commonwealth’s constitutional requirement to prioritize general obligation debt above other obligations is not a regrettable necessity, as the Journal seems to suggest, but a violation of the law. Such a step is not only unnecessary but also portends long-run ramifications that would be to the detriment of the island’s residents.
The Journal mistakenly places its faith in the island’s recently announced fiscal plan, which bases its sparse debt repayments on the island’s supposedly ongoing economic contraction. In fact, Puerto Rico’s nominal GDP is at an all-time high (as are tax revenues), having grown 20% over the last decade. While the Journal praises the fiscal plan’s ostensible parsimony, spending actually grows by 12% over the next decade—it’s the 80% reduction in debt payments that makes it appear as if Puerto Rico’s government has restrained anything. To essentially forego any serious spending reforms when there is a fiscal oversight commission in place to take the political heat is mystifying—as is the Wall Street Journal’s facile praise of this approach. It’s also worth remembering that Puerto Rico’s government employs a much greater proportion of its workforce than any state in the union, so this notion that there’s nothing to cut in their budget doesn’t hold water.
If Puerto Rico does succeed in escaping its obligations to secured creditors, look for a stampede in the bond markets, as lenders come to realize there is no such thing as a safe government bond or an ironclad legal protection. What happens in Puerto Rico is going to be perceived by the bond markets as the model for Illinois—and Kentucky and California before too long.
What Puerto Rico threatens to establish is that regardless of any contractual agreements or constitutional pledges, all bets are off when a government not covered by Chapter 9 bankruptcy can’t pay its debts.