SAN JUAN, April 5 Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro
Garcia Padilla has signed an overhaul of the U.S. territory's
cash-short public pension fund into law, after it was passed by
lawmakers late on Thursday in a bid to soothe investors and
shore up the country's sputtering economy.
"This has not been a simple process," Garcia Padilla said as
he enacted the legislation on Thursday night that had been
bitterly opposed by labor unions.
"It has been a topic that has been avoided for the past 60
years. No administration has taken the responsibility of
reforming the retirement system," the governor said.
Officials said the overhaul, of the notoriously weak and
underfunded public pension system, was a crucial step to avoid a
potentially devastating credit downgrade.
"No retirement system in the world is as broken as ours,"
Senate President Eduardo Bhatia said on Thursday, before the
overhaul legislation was approved by both houses of the
Caribbean island's legislature.
All three major credit ratings firms have recently
downgraded Puerto Rico's bond ratings to just above junk-bond
status, pointing to widening budget deficits as the island
struggles to emerge from a five-year recession that has pushed
unemployment to nearly 15 percent.
The Caribbean island is a leading borrower in the $3.7
trillion U.S. municipal bond market. Any further downgrade by
rating agencies would sharply increase the cost of borrowing for
Puerto Rico, which needs to be able to issue bonds at attractive
rates to meet pressing short-term financing needs.
The new pension law will raise the retirement age for some
state workers, increase worker pensions contributions and lower
monthly pensions and benefits for some public workers.
It will also reduce state workers' Christmas bonuses and
eliminate summer bonus payments.
Although the municipal bond market could show some positive
reaction to the pension reform news, Puerto Rico's yields were
already the highest of any borrower in the U.S. municipal bond
On Thursday, Puerto Rico's 10-year yield spread over triple
A bonds ended at a four-year high of 310 basis points, unchanged
from Wednesday, Municipal Market Data showed.
The 10-year Puerto Rico yield spread hit a record high at
340 basis points in February 2009 during the financial crisis.
The government's main retirement fund faces an unfunded
liability of more than $37 billion. The fund, which serves more
than 200,000 current and retired government workers, is only
about 7 percent funded and officials have warned it could run
out of money by 2018.
To help narrow the budget deficit, top Puerto Rico
government officials say they are evaluating tax increases and
other measures to increase annual revenue by more than $1
Tax noncompliance is one of the problems that have prompted
comparisons between Puerto Rico and Greece, however.