On August 1, Puerto Rico defaulted on part of its enormous $72 billion debt, paying back only $628,000 on a $58 million loan that was due at the start of the month. The default, which marks the most serious credit event in US state and municipal bond markets since the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, has led many to draw obvious comparisons to Greece – and understandably so.
Like Greece, Puerto Rico has been mired in a protracted recession that has seen unemployment rise, living standards fall and countless people leave their homeland in search of better life opportunities abroad. Like Greece, Puerto Rico is buckling under an unsustainable debt load that its leaders claim “cannot be paid.” And like Greece, Puerto Rico is effectively a ward of the larger union of which it is a part: Greece of the Eurozone and Puerto Rico of the United States.
But for all these obvious similarities, there is one puzzling difference: while Puerto Rico was allowed to default on its debts without drawing much ire – or interest – from the US government, Greece has not been able to do the same. Why was Puerto Rico allowed to default while Greece was not? The answer is simple: first follow the rules, then follow the money – and you will see.
When it comes to the rules, part of the answer surely lies in the peculiar institutional arrangement Puerto Rico finds itself in. As a commonwealth – or a de facto colony – of the United States, Puerto Rico and its public corporations can neither turn to the IMF for a bailout loan, as nominally “sovereign” nations like Greece and Portugal have done in recent years, nor file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the US, as state municipalities like Detroit and Stockton, CA. have.
The result is to leave the country in a sort of legal and financial limbo from which the only possible escape is either a bailout from the federal government or a unilateral suspension of payments on the debt. Since the former does not appear to be forthcoming (at least not for now), the latter has become all but inevitable. Experts widely believe further missed payments are still ahead.
When it comes to the money, however, we encounter the real reason why the US creditors have been so reluctant to intervene: because Puerto Rico basically just defaulted on its own people. The non-payment of August 1 was strictly limited to bonds held by the Public Finance Corporation, in which almost 900,000 poor and mostly rural Puerto Ricans – powerless pensioners and small savers – have invested their life savings through their local not-for-profit credit unions.
As one of them just told The New York Times, “they told me this was safe, that the legal protections were strong. They told me this was the best place to put my money, and I trusted them.”
But the bonds were not safe and those who sold them were not to be trusted. What most Puerto Rican savers and pensioners did not know was that their island’s awkward legal status under US law had allowed the big players on Wall Street to effectively turn their homeland into a casino. Because Puerto Rico’s government was in dire need of external financing, and because its public bonds are governed by a so-called “triple-exemption rule” that makes interest paid on them free of all city, state and federal taxes in the mainland United States, the banks saw a potential boom market.
As Eric Draitser wrote for teleSUR on the day before the default:
Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, and many others rushed to underwrite massive loans in the form of bond purchases in order to then turn around and sell those bonds to hedge funds and other investors in the US and around the world, thereby raking in tremendous profits on the underwriting fees. Essentially, Wall Street banks came in with enormous capital, then transferred the risk on to other speculators, while making handsome profits as middlemen.
Hedge fund managers clearly got drunk on the high yields, zero-taxes, steep discounts and strong constitutional protections that these Puerto Rican bonds offered. As late as 2014, Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital referred to investing in Puerto Rico as his “best idea,” while John Paulson – who gained notoriety for his speculative bets in Greece in recent years – even praised the economically moribund US debt colony as “the Singapore of the Caribbean.”
Now, what has largely gone unmentioned in the media since the default is that the Puerto Rican government did, on the same day, repay most of its nearly $500 million in other obligations to the big hedge funds and other institutional investors. The default, in other words, was a strategic decision by the Puerto Rican government – presumably undertaken under the pressure of the hedge funds themselves – to avoid losing access to future credit.
As a journalist for The Independent summarized the situation: “Some have called the $58 million default a calculated effort, as Puerto Rico paid ‘the big guys’ with the legal power to sue, while it shortchanged the low-risk creditors in its own backyard.” Or, as James Henry, an investment scholar at Columbia University, put it:
They have selectively defaulted. They are defaulting on publicly-traded stuff and trying to negotiate private agreements with hedge funds. Hedge funds have a lot of clout in governments and are likely going behind the scenes to help influence who gets paid back. If Puerto Rico ever wants to borrow again they have to pay back these guys. That’s the vulture approach.
Meanwhile, even though it cannot apply for an IMF bailout, the Puerto Rican government has already called in the help of three ex-IMF officials, including the Fund’s former deputy chief economist Anne Krueger, for advise on how to proceed. In a report published at the end of June, the three advisors called on the government to fire thousands of teachers, close schools, increase property taxes, suspend the minimum wage and slash the amount of paid holidays in half.
Perhaps, then, Puerto Rico’s default is not all that different from Greece’s non-default after all. Barely a month after Eurozone officials incorporated Greece as a de facto economic protectorate, US investors appear to be adamant to exact the same kind of discipline from their own long-standing debt colony. Default, it seems, is fine – as long as the bankers and the vultures are repaid.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos.
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