The steep decline in prices of Puerto Rican bonds has caused local investors substantial investment losses in assets that many are claiming were sold to them as safe and secure bonds. According to a New York Times article, Puerto Rico’s woes stem from the fact that its 3.7 million residents have approximately $87 billion of debt outstanding (about $23,000 of debt for every man, woman, and child) and spiraling pension costs. Further, Puerto Rico has experienced a rapidly declining population and double-digit unemployment causing the debt to be left behind to a smaller and poorer population to shoulder the debt burden.
Bond losses have been so great that Puerto Rico has been effectively shut out of the bond market and is now financing its operations with bank credit and other short-term measures that are unsustainable. The commonwealth’s bonds are widely held by local mutual funds issued by Puerto Rico’s largest brokerage firms including UBS Puerto Rico, Popular Securities, Inc., and Santander Securities, Corp. If the situation continues to worsen some fear that Puerto Rico will need some sort of federal action and bailout, an action without precedent.
Investor loss estimate tied to the bond fund sell-off have reached hundreds of millions of dollars. However, an accurate tally of the total damages is impossible at this time. Some investors have begun filing claims against their brokerage firm claiming that the losses have substantially or completely wiped out their retirement savings. These investors have claimed that their brokerage firm sold the bond funds as safe, stable, income producing investments. However, the bond funds not only had concentrated credit risk in Puerto Rican securities but also, in the case of the UBS leveraged funds, employed leverage of over 53%, exacerbating the losses. Comparatively, municipal bond funds domiciled in the United States are allowed to use only about half as much leverage as employed by the UBS funds.