Puerto Rico creditors call for 'necessary' government assistance after hurricane

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A group of Puerto Rico creditors said on Wednesday that they hoped the island receives the governmental assistance necessary to allow it a “speedy recovery,” after Hurricane Maria threw the island’s financial future into even greater limbo.

Puerto Rico, which filed the largest-ever U.S. government bankruptcy in May, is struggling to recover from the effects of the hurricane, which left much of the island inaccessible, communication difficult and fuel in short supply. A lack of power on the island is a particularly acute problem.

The hurricane has raised questions about how much of a role the federal government plays in solving Puerto Rico’s crisis and whether creditors would give any relief to the island, weighed down by $72 billion debt.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that Puerto Rico’s billions of dollars of debt to the Wall Street and banks “must be dealt with.”

Trump on Tuesday agreed to boost federal disaster assistance, ordering increased funding be made available to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures. The question remains how large any package might be.

“It certainly looks grim from a bondholder’s perspective,” said Jonathan Mondillo, Portfolio Manager at Alpine Woods Capital Investors LLC. “Right now it’s a question of how much federal funds ultimately the island is going to see.”

Puerto Rico’s bonds have been under pressure since the disaster.

A group of creditors holding COFINA debt, which is bonds backed by sales tax revenue, said in a statement on Tuesday that they hoped the island received “necessary humanitarian and governmental assistance” to strengthen the island’s infrastructure for the long term.

Earlier on Wednesday, creditors of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility PREPA said they had offered the utility some relief, with a $1 billion loan and a discount on a portion of the existing debt.

Ted Hampton, analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said given the magnitude of the disaster Puerto Rico is coping with, “it would not be surprising to see various parties to its debt restructuring proceedings go out of their way to be accommodating in whatever ways they can.”

“At the same time, I still think the debt restructuring is something that is going to be proceeding on a separate track from relief efforts,” Hampton said.

Mondillo said in terms of the federal government’s role, “stepping in and paying off bondholders ... would be very politically unpopular” and a more likely scenario would be government help with the humanitarian situation in terms of more federal funds or some kind of incentive program for private industry.

Ben Eiler, managing partner at First Southern Securities in Puerto Rico, which trades Puerto Rico debt, said there are two likely scenarios that could unfold in Puerto Rico.

“FEMA and the federal government can come in there with a large amount of finances to rebuild the island. Or, as soon possible, these people are going to be buying one-way tickets out of Puerto Rico and they’re not coming back,” Eiler said.

Over the longer term, the U.S. government can do a number of things to rebuild and stimulate Puerto Rico’s economy, including providing tax incentives to businesses to open operations on the island, he said. Forgiving a chunk of the island’s debt was unlikely, Eiler said, as it could lead to lawsuits, he said.

Reporting by Nick Brown, Megan Davies, Laila Kearney and Stephanie Kelly; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Chizu Nomiyama