Puerto Rico Default

THE JULY 1st 2016 DEFAULT

 

 

Yesterday governor Alejandro García Padilla, just a day after PROMESA became law, and in cahoots with the US Treasury and President Obama, defaulted on the payment of the General Obligations bonds guaranteed by the Constitution in excess of $800 million. This was not coincidence. I have time and again mentioned that the struggle over the payment of PR’s debt is the spearhead of a greater struggle over the sanctity of these GO bonds that has great repercussions over such Democrat strongholds as Illinois, California and New York.

 

By defaulting on these GO bonds, formerly considered sacred and protected by the PR Constitution, the Governor not only violates his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but also frightens away future holders of PR bonds. He did it under the theory that PR cannot be sued during the stay provided by PROMESA (section 405). But as usual, the governor misunderstands the stay. PR cannot be sued for collection of moneys during the stay, but it expires on February 15, 2017 and it is only extendable for 75 more days, to wit, May 2017 (section 405(d)). Also, the stay may be lifted after a notice and a hearing for cause shown (section 405(e)).

 

In addition, GO bondholders may go to Federal Court in a declaratory judgment requesting a declaration that the governor’s actions violate the Constitution, 11 U.S.C. § 903 (section used by the Federal Courts to invalidate the Recovery Act) without seeking collection of money and at the same time request the lifting of the stay. We must remember that section 405(k) of PROMESA says that “[t[his section does not discharge an obligation of the Government of Puerto Rico or release, invalidate, or impair any security interest or lien securing such obligation.” Finally, la section 405(l) states:

 

Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the Government of Puerto Rico from making any payment on any Liability when such payment becomes due during the term of the stay, and to the extent the Oversight Board, in its sole discretion, determines it is feasible, the Government of Puerto Rico shall make interest payments on outstanding indebtedness when such payments become due during the length of the stay.

 

In other words, the governor’s actions are not necessarily protected by PROMESA. Let’s see what happens.

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The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

 

Lin Manuel Miranda's 100 Miles Across

Lin Manuel Miranda’s 100 Miles Across

On Last Week With John Oliver last night, Lin Manuel Miranda and John Oliver made an impassioned plead in favor of Congressional help to Puerto Rico. Since I am not a fan of musical theater, my wife, who would give a kidney for tickets to Hamilton, had to explain who Lin Manuel was, I saw the video and recognize his incredible talent.  It is clear that they both are sincere in their plead for the island. It is also clear that they do not have all the information on the PR Debt Crisis.

 

The bad guys in their narrative are the hedge funds or as they call them, vulture funds. These are funds that go into distressed businesses or municipalities and buy their bonds at a discount. In the case, for example, of the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank bonds, they are selling at around 18 cents on the dollar. This is equivalent of a 34% interest rate. Of course, PR will likely default on them on May 1.

 

Hedge funds come in all colors and sizes. Some want to be paid 100 cents on the dollar, others are willing to take a haircut (a cut in the price and hence the interest rate paid) because they would still make money. For example, in the PR Power Electric Company’s deal, where bondholders are taking haircuts, there are hedge funds. Hence, to say they are the enemy is disingenuous.

 

Another misconception is Chapter 9. If you hear Mr. Miranda or Mr. Oliver, it seems the panacea to all of the island’s problems. However, Chapter 9 DOES NOT APPLY to the Government of Puerto Rico or to ANY state government. It applies to MUNICIPALITIES, which is defined as the more common cities of a state or its political subdivisions. In Puerto Rico’s case, much of the debt was issued by political subdivisions. Still, Chapter 9 does not provide much relief as I further explain.

 

According to the Government Development Bank Quarterly Report dated May 7, 2015, PR’s GO debts total $23.804 billion. PR’s GO’s have the protection of the island’s constitution which requires that in case of a lack of funds in the budget, they be paid before anything else. See, Article VI, section 8 of the Constitution. That leaves us with $48.400 billion as potentially subject to Chapter 9. However, 11 U.S.C. § 109(c) requires that state law specifically allow a municipality or public corporation to file for Chapter 9 protection. If Law 71-2014, the Recovery Act, is any indication of the legislature’s intent, municipalities, the GBD and its subsidiaries, the Fideicomiso de Niños, the Commonwealth’s Retirement System and its instrumentalities, the Judicial Retirement Fund, the Agency for Municipal Financing, AFI, COFINA, the Teacher’s Retirement Fund, and others were excluded from filing for its protection. Therefore, one can conclude that the legislature would not allow them to file for Chapter 9 protection. If one excludes these parties bonds, one is left with only $24.914 billion that could file for Chapter 9 protection, leaving $47.290 unprotected. See pages 56 and 64 of Government Development Bank Quarterly Report dated May 7, 2015.

 

Moreover, 11 USC § 109(c) requires that a municipality be insolvent in order to file for Chapter 9 protection. But COFINA is not insolvent. Hence, even if PR law allowed it to file, it could not. In addition, § 109(c) requires that the parties negotiate in good faith. Ms. Melba Acosta, head of the Government Development Bank testified in a case in February 2016 in Federal Court where WalMart was challenging a PR tax and admitted, under oath, that the FIRST time PR had met with its creditors was January 29, 2016. Hence, this good faith negotiation has not yet been met.

 

These and other reasons are why PR is pushing for a Super Chapter 9 where it would restructure all of its debt. That, however, has a snowball’s chance in hell of being approved since no STATE can do this and would be a terrible precedent for General Obligation bondholders. If Congress gives this to a territory, why would it not provide it to the states? And the 10th Amendment would not be a bar since it would mirror Chapter 9 by making it a state decision to take advantage of the law.

 

Another inaccuracy is the mention of firing teachers as a hedge funds idea. Happens to be that it is part of the Government of Puerto Rico’s Krueger report, which in typical IMF fashion, favors wholesale firing of employees and lowering of minimum wage. AGAIN, THIS IS NOT HEDGE FUNDS’ IDEAS BUT RATHER AN OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT REPORT. As to the hospital that had its electricity disconnected, there is no mention that the lack of government payments was what forced the default. PR’s Government claims it cannot pay its bond debt, but it is not paying its suppliers to the tune of $2 billion. In addition, there is no mention of the fact that the last 4 administrations have more than doubled the debt in order to finance its budgetary deficits or that the island has 120 public agencies. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico has been able to pay TENS OF  MILLIONS  to their restructuring advisors and spin-doctors without complain.  See:  Professional Services Contracts for the Government Development Bank 1/1/2013-4/26/2016 (And this is just for the Government Development Bank, does not include the TENS OF MILLIONS already spent over at PREPA, PRASA, and other agencies)

Finally, and more importantly, the fact is that the PR economy has not grown in quite a while. Without economic development, PR cannot pay its debt. At the center of this morass is the status, which Mr. Miranda seems to want to ignore. Interestingly, since the 1930’s Luis Muñoz Marín proclaimed that the status was not the issue but rather improving the economy. More than 70 years later the economy is worse than ever. The status IS the issue.

 

Puerto Rico is in dire problems, yes, and help is needed, yes, but as Sergeant Joe Friday used to say, “just the facts, just the facts.”

 

You can also read on my blog:  CHAPTER 9 DOES NOT RESOLVE PUERTO RICO’S PROBLEMS

 

Previous Last Week With John Oliver where he mentioned Puerto Rico

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE RECOVERY ACT ORAL ARGUMENT

 

 

As I was reviewing something a friend sent me, and it got me curious about an old SCOTUS case, Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park, 316 U.S. 502 (1942). In this case, the SCOTUS allowed a New Jersey law that changed obligations on some municipal bonds. Due to this case, in 1946, Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code to prohibit a state from providing the composition of debts by its municipalities.

 

As I reviewed the case, did some digging and found some interesting facts. In United Trust Company of New York v. New Jersey, 431 U.S. 1, 28 (1977), the issue was the repeal of a statutory covenant made by the two states (New York and New Jersey) that had limited the ability of the Port Authority to subsidize rail passenger transportation from revenues and reserves. A New Jersey superior court dismissed the complaint after trial, holding that the statutory repeal was a reasonable exercise of New Jersey’s police power and was not prohibited by the Contract Clause, and the New Jersey Supreme Court, affirmed the dismissal of the suit that challenged the provision. The SCOTUS reversed the New Jersey Court and found that the action violated the impairment of contractual obligations. The Court stated as follows:

 

Under the specific composition plan at issue in Faitoute, the holders of revenue bonds received new securities bearing lower interest rates and later maturity dates. This Court, however, rejected the dissenting bondholders’ Contract Clause objections. The reason was that the old bonds represented only theoretical rights; as a practical matter the city could not raise its taxes enough to pay off its creditors under the old contract terms. The composition plan enabled the city to meet its financial obligations more effectively. “The necessity compelled by unexpected financial conditions to modify an original arrangement for discharging a city’s debt is implied in every such obligation for the very reason that thereby the obligation is discharged, not impaired.” Id., at 511, 62 S.Ct. at 1134. Thus, the Court found that the composition plan was adopted with the purpose and effect of protecting the creditors, as evidenced by their more than 85% approval. Indeed, the market value of the bonds increased sharply as a result of the plan’s adoption.

 

It is clear that the instant case involves a much more serious impairment than occurred in Faitoute. No one has suggested here that the States acted for the purpose of benefiting the bondholders, and there is no serious contention that the value of the bonds was enhanced by repeal of the 1962 covenant. Appellees recognized that it would have been impracticable to obtain consent of the bondholders for such a change in the 1962 covenant, Brief for Appellees 97-98, even though only 60% approval would have been adequate. See n. 10, supra. We therefore conclude that repeal of the 1962 covenant cannot be sustained on the basis of this Court’s prior decisions in Faitoute and other municipal bond cases.

 

This narrowing of the Faitoute doctrine has been recognized by other courts. In In Re Detroit, 504 B.R. 97, 144-45 (B. E. D. Mich 2013) Judge Rhodes had the same view as did the Court in In Re Jefferson County, 465 B.R. 243, 293 n. 21 (B. N. D. Alabama). The Supreme Court of Illinois in Harding, Inc. v. Village of Mount Prospect, 99 Ill.2d 96, 103-104 (1983) held in a similar fashion and said:

 

In our judgment the opinion of the United States Supreme Court in United States Trust Co. v. New Jersey (1977), 431 U.S. 1, 97 S.Ct. 1505, 52 L.Ed.2d 92, is dispositive of this case, for the circumstances there considered insufficient to sustain legislative alteration of contractual obligations were substantially more compelling than here. In that case, the States of New York and New Jersey, by a 1962 statutory covenant, limited the ability of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to divert, for purposes of subsidizing rail-passenger transportation, certain revenues and reserves previously pledged as security for bonds issued by the Port Authority. Concurrent legislation in both States some 12 years later purported to retroactively repeal the earlier covenant. That legislation was attacked as impermissibly impairing the obligations of the Authority bonds issued prior to repeal. While the State court held the repealing legislation was a reasonable exercise of the State’s police power (United States Trust Co. v. State (1976), 69 N.J. 253, 353 A.2d 514), the Supreme Court reversed on the ground that the 1974 repealer statute was an unconstitutional impairment of the Port Authority’s contract with its bondholders. In reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed at length the history of the contracts clause and noted that it has upheld State legislation impairing contracts in very few cases. Only once in this century, in the case of Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park (1942), 316 U.S. 502, 62 S.Ct. 1129, 86 L.Ed. 1629, has the court upheld a statute that impaired contract rights of municipal bondholders. In that case, the challenged legislation permitted a bankrupt local government to go into receivership, but it also provided significant protections for all creditors: any bankruptcy repayment plan required approval of 85% of all creditors, and nonconsenting creditors were to be bound by the plan only after a State court determination that the municipality could not otherwise pay its creditors and that the repayment plan was in the best interest of all creditors.

 

Only in one of the respondents merits briefs is Faitoute discussed in this fashion. At page 28 of Franklin California’s brief this issue is discussed. In addition, in Franklin California v. PR, 85 F.Supp.3d 577, 606 (D.P.R. 2015) Judge Besosa discussed the case and said:

 

The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Contract Clause prohibits states from passing laws, like the Recovery Act, that authorize the discharge of debtors from their obligations. See Ry. Labor Execs.’ Ass’n, 455 U.S. at 472 n. 14, 102 S.Ct. 1169 (“[T]he Contract Clause prohibits the States from enacting debtor relief laws which discharge the debtor from his obligations.”); Stellwagen v. Clum, 245 U.S. 605, 615, 38 S.Ct. 215, 62 L.Ed. 507 (1918) (“It is settled that a state may not pass an insolvency law which provides for a discharge of the debtor from his obligations.”); Sturges, 17 U.S. at 199 (Contract Clause prohibits states from introducing into bankruptcy laws “a clause which discharges the obligations the bankrupt has entered into.”).

 

The Commonwealth Legislative Assembly cites Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park, New Jersey, 316 U.S. 502, 62 S.Ct. 1129, 86 L.Ed. 1629 (1942), as support for the Recovery Act’s “constitutional basis.” Recovery Act, Stmt. of Motives, § C. In Faitoute, the Supreme Court sustained a state insolvency law for municipalities in the face of a Contract Clause challenge. 316 U.S. at 516, 62 S.Ct. 1129. The state law was narrowly tailored in three important ways: (1) it explicitly barred any reduction of the principal amount of any outstanding obligation; (2) it affected only unsecured municipal bonds that had no real remedy; and (3) it provided only for an extension to the maturity date and a decrease of the interest rates on the bonds. Id. at 504–07, 62 S.Ct. 1129. The Supreme Court was careful to state: “We do not go beyond the case before us. Different considerations may come into play in different situations. Thus we are not here concerned with legislative changes touching secured claims.” Id. at 516, 62 S.Ct. 1129. Unlike the state law in Faitoute, the Recovery Act (1) permits the reduction of principal owed on PREPA bonds, (2) affects secured bonds that have meaningful remedies, including the appointment of a receiver, and (3) permits modifications to debt obligations beyond the extension of maturity dates and adjustment of interest rates. Thus, Faitoute is factually distinguishable and provides no support for the Recovery Act’s constitutionality.

 

What does all this mean? Simple, even if the SCOTUS says that section 903 does not apply to PR since it is not eligible for Chapter 9, after the law clerks review the cases again, they may conclude and so inform the Justices, that the island cannot restructure its debts by affecting bondholders. Of course, the SCOTUS may modify or distinguish United Trust Company of New York to allow the restructuring or it can completely reverse it. On the other hand, since this issue is in one brief and the District Court opinion, the SCOTUS should not simply ignore it. If it does, Judge Besosa would have another issue to declare the Recovery Act unconstitutional.