After Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis, Worries Shift to Virgin Islands

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Mary Williams Walsh (The New York Times, 25 June 2017) analyzes the threat to U.S. territories—including the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands—in view of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis:

The United States Virgin Islands is best known for its powdery beaches and turquoise bays, a constant draw for the tourists who frequent this tiny American territory. Yet away from the beaches the mood is ominous, as government officials scramble to stave off the same kind of fiscal collapse that has already engulfed its neighbor Puerto Rico.

The public debts of the Virgin Islands are much smaller than those of Puerto Rico, which effectively declared bankruptcy in May. But so is its population, and therefore its ability to pay. This tropical territory of roughly 100,000 people owes some $6.5 billion to pensioners and creditors.

Now, a combination of factors — insufficient tax revenue, a weak pension system, the loss of a major employer and a new reluctance in the markets to lend the Virgin Islands any more money — has made it almost impossible for the government to meet its obligations. In January, the Virgin Islands found itself unable to borrow and nearly out of funds for basic government operations.

The sudden cash crunch was a warning sign that the financial troubles that brought Puerto Rico to its knees could soon spread. All of America’s far-flung territories, among them American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, appear vulnerable.

[. . .] For decades, these distant clusters of islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific have played critical roles as American listening posts, wartime staging grounds, practice bombing ranges and even re-entry points for astronauts splashing down in the Pacific. The military presence buoyed their small economies, and a federal tax subsidy made it relatively easy for them to issue bonds. Over the years, they have collectively borrowed billions of dollars to build roads, run schools, treat drinking water and fund hospitals.

Congress has generally relied on the Government Accountability Office to monitor the financial health of the territories, but it did not intervene over the years when the auditors brought back reports of “formidable fiscal challenges” or “serious internal control weaknesses” on the islands. Not, at least, until Puerto Rico went over the edge.

Now the G.A.O. auditors are back, re-examining the debt and repayment ability of each territory, amid concerns that other crushing debt burdens may have escaped notice. An agency spokesman, Fuller O. Griffith, said it would report by the end of the year on “federal options to avert the future indebtedness of territories.” It is not clear what those options will be. [. . .]

Even Guam, which enjoys the economic benefit of several large American military installations, has been having qualms about its debt after Puerto Rico’s default.

“Puerto Rico’s troubles provide a teachable moment for Guam,” said Benjamin Cruz, the speaker of the legislature, who recently helped defeat a proposal to borrow $75 million to pay tax refunds. “Spending borrowed money is too easy.”

But the debt dilemma is now most acute in the Virgin Islands — the three main islands are St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — where the government has been struggling ever since a giant refinery closed in 2012, wiping out the territory’s biggest nongovernment employer and a mainstay of its tax base.

Its troubles began to snowball last July, when Puerto Rico defaulted on most of its debts.

In August, Fitch downgraded the Virgin Islands’ debt to junk, citing the territory’s chronic budget deficits and habit of borrowing to plug the holes, like Puerto Rico.

More downgrades followed, and in December, Standard & Poor’s dealt the territory a rare “super-downgrade” — seven notches in one fell swoop — leaving it squarely in the junk-bond realm. That scared away investors and forced it to cancel a planned bond offering in January.

The failed bond deal meant there was not enough cash to pay for basic government operations in February or March. As a stopgap, the territory diverted its workers’ pension contributions.

The Virgin Islands’ governor, Kenneth E. Mapp, said he had no intention of defaulting on any bonds.

“I didn’t ask anybody for debt relief, so don’t put me in the debt-relief boat,” Mr. Mapp said in an interview at Government House, the ornate seat of the territorial government, perched on a hillside overlooking the lush palms and bougainvillea of the capital, Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas.

Still, Mr. Mapp is contending with many of the same problems that proved too much for Puerto Rico, driving it in May to seek bankruptcy-like protection under a new law for insolvent territories, known as Promesa. Puerto Rico is now embroiled in heated negotiations over how to reduce its roughly $123 billion in debts and unfunded pensions. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/25/business/dealbook/virgin-islands-debt-payment-pensions.html

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