Feb 5 Puerto Rico is teeing up sizeable debt
deals that may include securities from an untested borrowing
agency, financial industry sources said, a move that could take
on new urgency after Standard & Poor's cut the island's credit
rating to junk.
The deals, which may total as much as an estimated $2
billion, are seen by analysts and many investors as vital to
ensuring the big borrower has adequate financial liquidity to
pay its bills and debts.
Government officials, courting potential investors wary of
possible financial engineering, aim to position the newly
created Municipal Financing Corp as a distinct entity among the
commonwealth's stable of municipal bond issuers, even though it
will tap sales-tax revenues as does the island's mainstay,
COFINA, which is the Spanish acronym for Puerto Rico's Sales
Tax Financing Corp, is among the U.S. territory's strongest
credits and may also sell debt as part of the sale expected this
month. With $15.5 billion of bonds outstanding, it is rated
AA-minus by Standard & Poor's and Fitch.
If the new entity wins a similar rating, that could prove
crucial for Puerto Rico's ability to attract investors now that
S&P has cut the island's overall credit rating to BB-plus, one
level below investment grade. The ratings agency cited Puerto
Rico's limited ability to access funds in the years ahead.
COFINA's rating was not changed.
The downgrade could oblige some institutional investors to
sell holdings of Puerto Rico's high-yielding bonds while keeping
others from participating in any new offering this month.
Government officials have hired a mainland law firm to
develop a legal opinion arguing that the new corporation will be
separate from COFINA and not subordinate to it, according to the
sources. That could help the corporation secure better interest
rates in the municipal bond market.
The new corporation was created to benefit Puerto Rico's 78
municipalities, which have total debt of about $590 million. It
joins more than a dozen Puerto Rico issuers that will pay $3.44
billion of debt service in 2013, according to Moody's Investor
Legislation passed last month increased the central
government's share of a 7 percent sales and use tax by 50 basis
points to 6 percent. The Municipal Financing Corp can refinance
and borrow off the 1 percent portion of the tax set aside for
But the new agency could add confusion to the market.
"It is another layer of complexity over Puerto Rico's COFINA
credit and general obligation credits," said one financial
industry source. "The markets are very concerned with the
financial engineering ... and that this will only complicate
things further with a new credit."
Yields on Puerto Rico bonds soared last year amid concerns
that the island's long-struggling economy, declining population
and high debt load would force it to restructure some $70
billion in tax-free debt.
The financial sources said details of the legal opinion were
expected to be made public during an investors teleconference by
officials of the island's fiscal agent, the Government
Development Bank, that is expected by mid-February.
The government, which has already cut spending, raised taxes
and reorganized worker pensions to try to shore up the budget,
announced new measures on Wednesday that included additional
cuts by commonwealth agencies.
Puerto Rico officials are also in discussions with local
banks about providing the government financing, as large U.S.
banks have cooled on providing direct lending to the Puerto Rico
government, the sources added.
Local banks also don't have sufficient capital to provide
all the money they could step up with some lending, the sources
Puerto Rico needs to raise between $800 million and $2
billion to meet its obligations, said Robert Donahue, managing
director at Municipal Market Advisers.