NEW YORK (Reuters) - Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Thursday the U.S. territory would make a $1.4 million interest payment on constitutionally backed bonds by drawing on so-called “clawback” money deposited at Banco Popular.
The payment to general obligation bondholders, which was due on Feb. 1 and initially missed, represents a departure from a series of defaults triggered last year by ex-Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla and may help assuage creditor concerns that Rossello would follow suit.
“We demonstrate today that our administration’s vision is very much different from the past, which was defaulting. Ours is compliance,” Rossello said at an event in San Juan with private sector leaders.
Rossello, sworn in on Jan. 2, said he would fund the payment by drawing on a $146 million account at Banco Popular. That money, initially earmarked to pay other debts, was pulled into the account through the use of a “clawback” measure introduced by Garcia Padilla last year as the island grappled with its fiscal crisis.”
Rossello said he would transfer the money to a new trust account that can only be used for general obligation payments.
Puerto Rico has $70 billion in total debt, a 45 percent poverty rate and unemployment more than twice the U.S. average.
Garcia Padilla did not seek re-election. Rossello campaigned as more conciliatory to Wall Street, vowing to cut government spending and try to pay as much of Puerto Rico’s debt as possible.
Just six weeks into his term, however, Rossello’s credibility with bondholders appeared to be eroding, with investors worrying privately that he might double down on his predecessor’s populist approach.
“He’s a disaster,” one creditor said earlier this week, saying Rossello’s rhetoric was creditor-friendly but that his policies changed little from the last administration. “It’s ready, fire, aim.”
In January Rossello signed a fiscal emergency law allowing him to set aside funds to pay for “essential” government services ahead of debt payments. It gave him unilateral authority to define “essential,” which some creditors feared would be interpreted broadly.
Elias Sanchez, the governor’s liaison to the federally appointed board managing Puerto Rico’s finances, told Reuters on Thursday that government officials would put every expenditure through a “litmus test” to determine if it was essential. He said the methodology will be made public as part of a fiscal turnaround plan the governor plans to present on Feb. 28.
Sanchez said creditors would be allowed to comment on the plan only after it is presented.
The final version of the fiscal emergency law also dropped a key provision that would have given Rossello more oversight of public money by letting him to seize control of funds that were outside the island’s general fund.
Privately, creditors said the law might violate Puerto Rico’s constitution by prioritizing services over G.O. debt, an issue already being litigated after Garcia Padilla’s decision last year to skip debt payments.
Rossello faces an uphill battle to keep creditors on his side, but the payment announced on Thursday may help his cause.
Creditors also recoiled at what they perceived as intent by Rossello to upend an $8.3 billion debt restructuring between Puerto Rico’s power authority, PREPA, and its bondholders.
Agreed over a year ago, the deal is considered all but complete as it awaits court validation. Bondholders would accept 15 percent payment reductions, while insurers like MBIA Inc. would fund a $450 million surety to protect against defaults.
According to two people close to the matter, Rossello’s administration has hinted it wants more concessions from the insurers.
But Sanchez said the island’s financial advisers, Rothschild, is studying the deal and has not decided whether to support it. He downplayed a sense of doom for the PREPA deal, saying, “We think it will be a quick success story.”
He suggested the governor’s reservations toward PREPA are more about the agency’s structure and said the agency should pursue public-private partnerships to modernize and integrate renewable energies under its 2015 Integrated Resource Plan.
“The current plan is predicated on keeping PREPA the prehistoric monopoly that it is,” Sanchez said.
Several creditors told Reuters that during a Jan. 27 PREPA board call, Sanchez and other government advisers abruptly told the agency’s restructuring chief Lisa Donahue, a holdover from the Garcia Padilla administration, she was no longer in charge.
Parties to the deal interpreted the move as a lack of understanding for how close the deal was to completion and the chilling effect it could have to reopen talks.
“If you can’t even bring home the deal that was teed up on the fairway, how can other creditors expect you to get deals done with them?” one creditor source said. “If PREPA doesn’t get done, it’ll crater and we’ll be in litigation.”