Detroit and Puerto Rico: Which Is the Worse Insolvency?

Detroit and Puerto Rico: Which Is the Worse Insolvency?
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Over four decades beginning in the 1970s, the U.S. financial system had one big municipal debt crisis per decade.  These were New York City in the 1970s, the Washington Public Power Supply System (“Whoops!”) in the 1980s, Orange County, California in the 1990s, and Jefferson County, Alabama in the 2000s.

But our current decade, not yet over, has already set two consecutive all-time records for the largest municipal insolvencies in history: first the City of Detroit, which entered bankruptcy in 2013, and then Puerto Rico, which is now in an equivalent of bankruptcy especially created for it by Congress (under Title III of the PROMESA Act of 2016).

Between bonds, unfunded pensions, and other claims, Detroit’s record-setting debt upon bankruptcy was $18.8 billion.  Puerto Rico has far surpassed that.  Its comparable debt is $122 billion, or 6.5 times that of Detroit, with $74 billion in bonds and $48 billion in unfunded pensions.

On the other hand, Puerto Rico is five times bigger than Detroit, with a population of 3.4 million, compared to 687,000.  We need to look at the problems on a per capita basis. 

The result is not optimistic for the creditors of Puerto Rico.  As shown below, Puerto Rico’s debt per capita is much bigger—33% higher-- than Detroit’s was in 2013: about $35,800 versus $26,900.

                            Total debt          Population         Debt per capita

Puerto Rico         $122 billion       3,411,000           $35,800

Detroit                $ 18.8 billion        687,000           $27,400

On top of more debt, Puerto Rico has much less income per capita—23% less—than Detroit did.  So as it arrives in court for a reorganization of its debts, its ratio of debt per capita to income per capita is 3.1 times, compared to 1.8 times for Detroit.  As shown below, this is 70% greater relative debt—or alternately stated, Puerto Rico’s per capita income to debt ratio is only 59% of Detroit’s.

                                                   Puerto Rico        Detroit                PR/ Detroit              Detroit/ PR

Total debt per capita                    $35,800              $27,400              131%                   77%

Income per capita                       $11,400              $14,900              77%                     131%

Per capita debt / income             3.14x                   1.84x                  170%                   59%

 

Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is very high at over 12%.  This not as huge as Detroit’s 22%, but Puerto Rico’s abysmal labor participation rate of 40%, compared to Detroit’s already low 53%, offsets this difference.  This leaves Puerto Rico with proportionally even fewer earners with lower incomes to pay the taxes to pay the much higher debt.

On a macro basis, then, it appears that the creditors of Puerto Rico can expect to do even more poorly than those of Detroit.  How poorly was that?

At its exit from a year and a half of bankruptcy, Detroit’s total debt had been reduced to $10.1 billion.  Overall, this was 53 cents on the dollar, or a loss of 47% from face value, on average.  However, various classes of creditors came out very differently.  Owners of revenue bonds on self-supporting essential services came out whole on their $6.4 billion in debt.  If we exclude this $6.4 billion, leaving $12.4 billion in claims by everybody else, the others all together got $3.7 billion, or a recovery of 30 cents on the dollar, or a loss of 70%, on average.

Recoveries in this group ranged from 82 cents on the dollar for public employee pensions, to 74 cents for the most senior general obligation bonds, to 44 cents on more junior bonds, to 25 cents for settling swap liabilities, to 13 cents on certificates of participation, to 10 cents on non-pension post-retirement benefits and other liabilities.  It is noteworthy that the public employee pensions did take a meaningful haircut, although they came out far better than most others.  The pension settlement also included special funds contributed by the State of Michigan and special funds contributed by charitable foundations to protect the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.  These latter factors will not be present in the Puerto Rico settlement.

As a macro estimate, if we take as a baseline Detroit’s average settlement of 53 cents on the dollar and multiply it by Puerto Rico’s 59% of Detroit’s ratio of per capita income to debt, we get a guess of 31 cents on average for all the creditors.  This is not extremely different from the official fiscal plan approved by the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, which estimates cash available for debt service of about 24% of the contractual debt service over the next ten years.

What will happen in the debt reorganization bargains, what role pension debt will play, how various classes of creditors will fare with respect to each other, what political actions there may be—all is up in the air as the court begins its work.

The lenders and borrowers responsible for the huge financial mistakes which led to deep insolvency need to seriously think through, as in every debt disaster, “How did we get ourselves into this mess?!”  They are a long way from getting out of it.

Alex J. Pollock is a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. He was President and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991-2004.  

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