Friday 15 November 2019

Puerto Rico defaults on debt repayment for first time ever

A woman carries the Puerto Rico flag as she walks inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, July 24, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar
A woman carries the Puerto Rico flag as she walks inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, July 24, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Megan Davies and Jessica DiNapoli

Puerto Rico has defaulted on debt by paying only a fraction of what was due on August 1, showing the depth of the island's economic and cashflow problems and potentially opening the door to broader defaults and litigation from bondholders.

The U.S. commonwealth paid only $628,000 of a $58 million payment due on its Public Finance Corp (PFC) bonds, the head of its Government Development Bank said in a statement yesterday.

"Due to the lack of appropriated funds for this fiscal year, the entirety of the PFC payment was not made today," GDB head Melba Acosta said.

Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla shocked investors in June when he said the island's debt, totaling $72 billion, was unpayable and required restructuring. The non-payment marks the first default by the commonwealth and is the most notable since Detroit defaulted on $1.45 billion of insured pension bonds before filing for bankruptcy in 2013.

"(They are) telling investors they are serious about this debt adjustment," said Peter Hayes, head of asset manager BlackRock's Municipal Bonds Group, which does not own any commonwealth-backed debt. "It may be a precursor to how they make payments going forward if they can't reach amicable settlements with creditors groups."

A default could open the door to a fight with investors. Daniel Hanson, analyst at Height Securities, said in a research note last week that market participants would probably file a lawsuit in San Juan as soon as Tuesday.

The price of PFC debt due 2031 fell to a record low ahead of the announcement, which had been well flagged, trading at 7.5 cents on the dollar. It was minimally active with one trade recorded on Monday. That price was down from 15.55 cents on the dollar last week.

While Puerto Rico has argued that missing a payment would not constitute default because its legislature is not legally bound to appropriate the funds for payment, credit agencies and investors saw it differently.

"Moody's views this event as a default," said Moody's analyst Emily Raimes in a statement. "This is a first in what we believe will be broad defaults on commonwealth debt."

Standard & Poor's said the missed payment presages other possible defaults as liquidity becomes further constrained, and added it would impede the island's ability to obtain financing for cash flow needs. The credit agency lowered its rating on $1 billion of PFC debt following the default to "D" from "CC".

PFC bonds have weaker protections than many other Puerto Rico bonds such as general obligation debt.

Also on Monday, Puerto Rico said in a regulatory filing it had temporarily suspended making monthly deposits to its general obligation redemption fund.

The decision to skip the debt payment showed the commonwealth was prioritizing its citizens over creditors, investors said.

"While the PFC default was widely expected, the failure to appropriate means that the financial crisis in Puerto Rico has entered a new stage, one where the territory is prepared to balance its obligations to its creditors with what it perceives as the public service needs on the island," said Thomas McLoughlin, UBS chief investment officer wealth management research.


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