Cate Long

Puerto Rico’s Restructuring Revisited

Cate Long brought to our attention an article from Caribbean Business on April 17, 2014  In it, the Chairman of the PR House Treasury Committee, Rafael “Tatito” Hernández stated the following:

 

“There will be across-the-board adjustments that will be fair to all, but there are a lot of adjustments that need to be made within each agency or public corporation,” Hernández said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Alejandro García Padilla enacted Law 24, which ordered government agencies to pay off their debts with the Government Development Bank and barred them from seeking financing without a clearly identified repayment source and without having the financial capacity to assume the debt. Not only did the legislation bar such practice, but it also holds government officials personally responsible for violating the law.

Hernández, who along with Rep. José “Connie” Varela (PDP-Caguas) has been holding public hearings this year on the operations of public corporations, said a measure similar to Law 24, but targeted at public corporations, will be approved along with other budgetary measures.

‘We are waiting to bring down the new measure along with the budget, because it has some very heavy language. It will give a directive to the heads of these entities to sit down with all its suppliers and creditors and say, ‘You know what? I have too much debt. Let’s make a payment plan and let’s adjust the rate. If not, I will find someone else with whom to do business,’ he said.

Hernández said he is talking about ‘everything,” from negotiating with suppliers and creditors to renegotiating contracts with labor unions. “If we don’t do this, some of these public corporations will close because they don’t have access to financing and can no longer count on a bailout from the Legislature. They will automatically collapse if they do nothing,’ he said.

 

Sounds great but there are a couple of problems with this. To sit down with creditors and suppliers and say, you have to restructure my debt begs the question, what if they say no? There are contractual obligations guaranteed by the PR and US Constitutions and can only be modified by the enactment of a law, during a clear and defined crisis and the law has to resolve or greatly ameliorate said crisis. This was the holding of the PR Supreme Court in the recent Teachers Retirement Fund case, Asociación de Maestros de PR, et als, v. Sistema de Retiro de Maestros de PR and Trinidad v. ELA, 2013 TSPR 73. The First Circuit Court of Appeals had essentially the same holding in United Auto., Aerospace, Agr. Implement Workers of America Intern. Union v. Fortuño, 633 F.3d 37 (1st Cir. 2011). Second, no public corporation or municipality in PR is eligible to Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code, see, 11 U.S.C. § 101(52) and the PS 993, for the local bankruptcy law, is moving at a snails pace. The next budget must be completed by June 30, 2014 and how these negotiations with suppliers and creditors are going to take place is an open question. Finally, please remember the US restructuring firms that had contracts with PR from February to March (see here my take on it ) More and more it seems that PR restructuring at least part of its debt is no longer an if but a when.

My Thoughts Regarding Mr. Leonard Weiser-Varon and Mr. William Kannel of Mintz Levin’s Blog Post

On March 17, 2014, Mr. Leonard Weiser-Varon and Mr. William Kannel of Mintz Levin published an entry in his blog titled “Legislative Balloon for Puerto Rico Public Corporation Insolvency Attracts Bondholder Attention”.   Although I agree with much of what is said there, a few issues need clarification.

Puerto Rico defaulting on its bond obligations is not an if, but rather a when. The island’s economy has not grown since 2006, with the exception of one quarter of .1% in 2012, clearly a case of depression rather than recession.  The idea of Puerto Rico’s default has been discussed all over the bond and business media and there seems to be a general agreement that it will happen in the next three years. Hence, a orderly process for the reorganization of Puerto Rico’s public corporations and even municipalities is a must.

Felix Salmon recently stated that “[t]he default will be messy, however, since there is no chapter of the US bankruptcy code that encompasses Puerto Rico. A lot of different court cases will be held in a passel of different jurisdictions, and a lot of lawyers will get rich. In the end, everybody is going to have to take a nasty hit—including the island’s retirees, whose pension funds are woefully underfunded.” (footnote omitted).  Given this scenario, it is in bondholders interest to have the administration of this impending default in the hands of one court with a clear statute to guide it. Moreover, Puerto Rico’s public corporations owe over $25 billion and municipalities, not yet included in the statute, owe $3.88 billion more. See, GBD presentation to investors of October 15, 2013, at page 56.   It must also be remembered that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, according to its financial statements of 2013, has $791,385,000 more in liabilities than in assets. See page 8.  See also my blog entry.

The entry mentions Governor Garcia Padilla’s opposition to the proposed measure but this must be taken with boulders of salt. As it is very common, he speaks with one side of his mouth to the voters in Puerto Rico and from another to investors. His only comments in the local press were that he had not participated in its writing and that no specific plans for restructuring of corporations had been adopted. In addition, given that the next administration, coming in on January 2, 2017, will have to assume the bulk of payment of the new $3.5 billion bond emission, the measure could very well garner minority vote to override any veto by the Governor.

The entry continues with a general questioning of Puerto Rico’s power to enact a liquidation or reorganization law. Although the power to enact bankruptcy laws was delegated to Congress via the U.S. Constitution, it is nevertheless a fact that for a large part of our history it was not used. The first bankruptcy law was enacted by Congress in 1800 to 1803 when it was repealed. Later it was enacted twice and repealed twice but in 1898 it was here to stay, with several amendments and a complete overhaul in 1978. In the interim, several state laws were enacted to fill the void.

In this framework and considering that Puerto Rico’s public corporations and municipalities are explicitly excluded from Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. § 101 (52), Puerto Rico can legislate since there is no preemption. With a doubt, however, any filing of a Puerto Rico public corporation or municipality pursuant to this law would trigger litigation but it would not take several years to resolve. Let us imagine that PREPA filed for protection of this new reorganization law. What would be the bondholder’s reaction? Rush to Federal Court to question the laws constitutionality? Very likely, but then they would be faced with several abstention doctrines, to wit, Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943) or Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959). Pullman requires the federal court to abstain when there are federal and state constitutional questions and send the case back to state court to litigate them. Unless plaintiff makes a specific reservation of federal rights via England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964), all claims will be litigated in state court and will be res judicata in federal court, see, Duty Free Shop Inc. v. Administración de Terrenos, 889 F.2d 1181 (1st Cir.1989). If there is such a reservation via Pullman, the plaintiff may return to federal court. Burford and Thibodaux are a bit more complicated for they involve undecided questions of state law of great public policy import. Case law is not clear if an England type reservation of rights would be possible pursuant to these abstention doctrines, see, Front Royal and Warren County Industrial Park Corporation v. Town of Front Royal, Virginia, 135 F.3d 275 (4th Cir. 1998) and Fields v. Sarasota Manatee Airport Auth., 953 F.2d 1299 (11th Cir.1992). Hence, the cases would be sent back to Puerto Rico’s courts.

Moreover, even if bondholders made a reservation of rights, the issues would be quickly decided. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has very actively exercised its discretion to certify issues in the Courts of First Instance for quick decision. This was done in Trinidad v. ELA, 2013 TSPR 73 and Domínguez Castro et al. v. E.L.A. I, 178 D.P.R. 1 (2010), cert denied, Domínguez Castro v. Puerto Rico, 131 S. Ct. 152  (2010) Both Trinidad and Domínguez Castro were decided in a year or less on issues of the constitutionality of altering contractual obligations.

This brings us to the issue of the alteration of contractual obligations pursuant to the U.S., rather than Puerto Rico’s constitution. Federal courts, however, have been accommodating of a government’s efforts to alter its obligations. It is allowed as long as evidence of crisis and failure of other efforts is discussed in the legislation. This was affirmed by the First Circuit in the firing of over 12,000 employees due to the 2009 financial crisis, see, United Auto., Aerospace, Agr. Implement Workers of America Intern. Union v. Fortuño, 633 F.3d 37 (1st Cir. 2011). As evidenced by the dates in these cases, these controversies were decided in less than two years at the state Supreme Court level and the Circuit Court of Appeals level. Given the strictures of the U.S. Supreme Court’s certiorari practice, it is unlikely it would be granted. Also, irrespective of which court decides the case or when, the fact remains that once the reorganization filing occurs, bondholders will cease to be paid.

The entry also points out, quite correctly, that the law as it is now, does not provide for a cram down of a plan. However, the Senators who wrote the act knew that it was incomplete and were expecting input from several sources, including my own.   Mr. Weiser-Varon and Mr. Kannel’s insight will undoubtedly be examined and adopted by the Puerto Rico legislature.

Response to Ms. Cate Long Regarding Mr. Felix Salmon’s Article

Mr. Felix Salmon from Reuters has come up with a very interesting and thought provoking piece on PR defaulting on its bonds. The gist of his piece is “The point here is that the concept of seniority doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you’re not operating in the context of a formal bankruptcy regime.” Obviously, he is referring to the seniority of the new $3.5 billion issue but more information is required to really understand the situation.

PR’s debts are owed by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Estado Libre Asociado in Spanish), the different public corporations, some of which can invoke 11th Amendment protection and some that cannot and the Municipalities. As such, none of these debts has any seniority, EXCEPT the following: General Obligation bonds issued pursuant to Article VI, sec. 2 of the Commonwealth’s Constitution  These bonds, however, are only around $16.233 billion of the $70 billion owed by the island. See slide 56 of the GBD’s presentation to bondholders of October 15, 2013  They are senior debt because the Constitution states that they must be paid BEFORE any other debt, which includes other bonds, guarantees and even salaries. The Constitution also provides a cause of action to bondholders to sue in the PR Treasury Secretary for payment. Hence, it is clearly a first lien. Hence, there is some seniority in GO bonds if PR law applies. Doubt there will be one in New York. The type of waiver of sovereignty contemplated by the PR Legislature is not exclusive jurisdiction in New York Courts but rather a concurrent jurisdiction with any other court with jurisdiction, i.e., PR Commonwealth Courts or the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. Why is this important? Simple, if PR believes it is close to default it can file in the Commonwealth Courts a suit for declaratory judgment in order to determine if the waiver is valid, if PR law or New York law is applicable to the emission, etc. Knowing PR courts, it will be years before bondholders get their money back. Moreover, don’t count on the Puerto Rico Federal District Court for help. Given the issues I have mentioned, abstention via Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943) or Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959), sending any removal back to Commonwealth Courts. Of course, that would require footwork Governor García Padilla, himself a lawyer, has never shown.

I concur with Mr. Salmon that any debt adjustment will be cumbersome without bankruptcy law, but since the Bankruptcy Code cannot protect PR or its public corporations or municipalities, the local legislature could write its own version of Chapter 9 and liquidation procedures. Bondholders will cry foul but modernly, states are given leeway to alter contractual obligations. See, United Auto., Aerospace, Agr. Implement Workers of America Intern. Union v. Fortuño, 633 F.3d 37 (1st Cir. 2011); Trinidad v. ELA, 2013 TSPR 73 and Domínguez Castro et al. v. E.L.A. I, 178 D.P.R. 1 (2010), cert denied, Domínguez Castro v. Puerto Rico, 131 S. Ct. 152  (2010).

I believe it would be best if PR would not take this loan, admit it cannot pay what it owes and negotiate some type of amnesty or debt reduction but since this government wants to be reelected, it will not happen this year. A final note, as I am writing, the press reports there is great reluctance from the PR House of Representatives on approving the limited waiver of immunity the Senate approved, even when it had done so before. Will keep you posted.