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The race to default…is it time for ‘Puerto Ricixt’?

It has been characteristic about the Great Recession that so relatively few countries have defaulted given the scale of the financial distress and the slump in economic activity. But it now seems to be changing. Greece this weekend moved dramatically closer to a sovereign default and the Ukrainian government has signaled that it could effectively default in July.

And now this from the commonwealth of Puerto Rico (from the New York Times):

Puerto Rico’s governor, saying he needs to pull the island out of a “death spiral,” has concluded that the commonwealth cannot pay its roughly $72 billion in debts, an admission that will probably have wide-reaching financial repercussions.

The governor, Alejandro García Padilla, and senior members of his staff said in an interview last week that they would probably seek significant concessions from as many as all of the island’s creditors, which could include deferring some debt payments for as long as five years or extending the timetable for repayment.

“The debt is not payable,” Mr. García Padilla said. “There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math.”

…Puerto Rico’s bonds have a face value roughly eight times that of Detroit’s bonds. Its call for debt relief on such a vast scale could raise borrowing costs for other local governments as investors become more wary of lending.

Perhaps more important, much of Puerto Rico’s debt is widely held by individual investors on the United States mainland, in mutual funds or other investment accounts, and they may not be aware of it.

Puerto Rico, as a commonwealth, does not have the option of bankruptcy. A default on its debts would most likely leave the island, its creditors and its residents in a legal and financial limbo that, like the debt crisis in Greece, could take years to sort out.

Still, Mr. García Padilla said that his government could not continue to borrow money to address budget deficits while asking its residents, already struggling with high rates of poverty and crime, to shoulder most of the burden through tax increases and pension cuts.

He said creditors must now “share the sacrifices” that he has imposed on the island’s residents.

…With some creditors, the restructuring process is already underway. Late last week, Puerto Rico officials and creditors of the island’s electric power authority were close to a deal that would avoid a default on a $416 million payment due on Wednesday.

…“My administration is doing everything not to default,” Mr. García Padilla said. “But we have to make the economy grow,” he added. “If not, we will be in a death spiral.”

A proposed debt exchange, where creditors would replace their current debt with new bonds with terms more favorable to Puerto Rico, signals a significant shift for Mr. García Padilla, a member of the Popular Democratic Party, who was elected in 2012.

…He said that when he took office, he tried to balance the fiscal situation through austerity measures and fresh borrowing. But he saw that the island was caught in a vicious circle where it borrowed to balance the budget, raised the debt and had an even bigger budget deficit the next year.

…“There is no U.S. precedent for anything of this scale or scope,” according to the report, one of whose writers was Anne O. Krueger, a former chief economist at the World Bank and currently a research professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

…Some officials and advisers say Congress needs to go further and permit Puerto Rico’s central government to file for bankruptcy — or risk chaos.

It is hard to miss the similarities between Puerto Rico and Greece, while Greece is a independent country Puerto Rico is a commonwealth within the USA, but both share the fact that they are part of a bigger currency union.

So if we wanted to formulate a theory of default we might want to bring in two elements – an in-optimal currency union (and too tight monetary policy for some members of the union) and serious moral hazard problems due to the perceived high likelihood of a bail-out by the big brother – the US government in the case of Puerto Rico and the European taxpayers in the case of Greece.

PS Ukraine and Venezuela are also on the path to default, but that I believe are quite different stories.

PPS What do we call it if Puerto Rico gives up the US dollar? Puerto Ricixt?

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We need a mechanism for sovereign debt crisis resolution

In the future I will be writing a weekly column for the Danish business daily Børsen. The first column appears in today’s edition of the newspaper (you can read the article in Danish here). International news outlets and newspapers interested a syndication deal on my new weekly column are welcome to contact me (lacsen@gmail.com).

On this occasion I here share the English translation of the article:

We need a mechanism for sovereign debt crisis resolution

Recently nearly all the news flow in the financial media has been about the risk of a Greek sovereign default. But Greece is not the only country, which is currently in serious risk of a default. The same is the case for Ukraine, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Thus, if we are unlucky, we might get 3-4 sovereign defaults within the next 1-2 months.

It is quite obvious that a possible Greek or Ukrainian sovereign default is something that contributes to the uncertainty surrounding especially the European economy and it is clear that this is contributing to increasing volatility in global financial markets.

The main source of uncertainty in relation to sovereign default is uncertainty about when it happens and what creditors that will be affected.

If we compare a sovereign default with a company or a bank going bankrupt, then it is the case that we in most developed economies in the world have relatively clear rules on how a possible bankruptcy should be handled in legal terms.

It is usually the case that a company in financial trouble under certain conditions can go into receivership, while trying to see if the company can be rescued. And if this rescue attempt fails then there will be quite clear rules about what creditors are first in line when the estate is made up.

Such mechanisms mostly ensure that an orderly and controlled restructuring or liquidation of the company can take place and at the same time ensure the greatest possible transparency about who will bear any losses.

Unfortunately we don’t have similar rules and mechanisms when it comes to sovereign defaults. As a result even a minor risk of a possible sovereign default creates unnecessary volatility in the global financial markets.

This, however, need not be the case and one may wonder why we in the EU hardly have discussed the possibility of organizing a mechanism within the EU, or at least within the euro area, which can ensure a more transparent and proper handling of threatening sovereign defaults.

In 2010, the four economists – including the former chief economist of the World Bank Anne Krueger – put forward a concrete proposal for “A European mechanism for sovereign debt crisis resolution”. The plan for example included a proposal for a special European court to oversee the process of debt negotiations and debt restructuring. Such a court and clear rules on debt restructuring would greatly help to make the handling of the sovereign debt crises much less politicized than it is today.

Unfortunately, the proposal has not received much attention among European decision-maker, and one can only fantasize about how much easier the handling of the Greek debt crisis would have been if we had such rules and mechanism for orderly debt restructuring in place in recent years.

Companies go bankrupt. And so does governments. We therefore urgently need to set up institutions and mechanisms to handle sovereign defaults.

Did Scotland avoid a Puerto Rican style crisis by voting “No” to independence?

I just read the latest depressing news about the Puerto Rican economy:

Puerto Rico’s economic activity has slumped to its lowest level in two decades, according to an index released by the commonwealth’s Government Development Bank (GDB), which also showed a sharp drop in electric power generation and cement sales.

The bank’s economic activity index fell 1.1 percent in August year-over-year, putting the headline index at the lowest level since 1994.

As I was reading it I realized that this is that the “No” campaign should have scared the Scottish people with at the recent vote on Scottish independence.

What Puerto Rico has is a monetary union, but not a full fiscal union, with the US. This is exactly what the Scottish independence proponents were favouring – continued monetary union with the UK, but complete fiscal sovereignty.

I am not sure that this makes sense (I have not been thinking too much about it…), but maybe the Scottish National Party should send a couple of observers to Puerto Rico to study the drawbacks to having a monetary union without full fiscal union before the next referendum.

PS There is a solution for Scotland that might solve this challenge. See here.

 

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