What do Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have in common? They are both islands in the Caribbean, they are both territories of the United States and they are both broke.
Moreover, they both benefited (or so it seemed in the past) from a credit subsidy unwisely granted by the U.S. Congress: having their municipal bonds be triple-tax exempt everywhere in the country, something U.S. states and their component municipalities never get. This tax subsidy helped induce investors and savers imprudently to overlend to both territorial governments, to finance their ongoing annual deficits and thus to create the present and future financial pain of both.
Puerto Rico, said a Forbes article from earlier this year—as could be equally said of the Virgin Islands—“could still be merrily chugging along if investors hadn’t lost confidence and finally stopped lending.” Well, of course: as long as the lenders foolishly keep making you new loans to pay the interest and the principal of the old ones, the day of reckoning does not yet arrive.
In other words, both of these insolvent territories experienced the Financial Law of Lending. This, as an old banker explained to me in the international lending crisis of the 1980s, is that there is no crisis as long as the lenders are merrily lending. The crisis arrives when they stop lending, as they inevitably do when the insolvency becomes glaring. Then everybody says how dumb they are for not having stopped sooner.
Adjusted for population size, the Virgin Islands’ debt burden is of the same scale as that of Puerto Rico. The Virgin Islands, according to Moody’s, has public debt of $2 billion, plus unfunded government pension liabilities of $2.6 billion, for a total $4.6 billion. The corresponding numbers for Puerto Rico are $74 billion and $48 billion, respectively, for a total $122 billion.
The population of the Virgin Islands is 106,000, while Puerto Rico’s is 3.4 million, or 32 times bigger. So we multiply the Virgin Islands obligations by 32 to see how they compare. This gives us a population-adjusted comparison of $64 billion in public debt, and unfunded pensions of $83 billion, for a total $147 billion. They are in the same league of disastrous debt burden.
What comes next? The Virgin Islands will follow along Puerto Rico’s path of insolvency, financial crisis, ultimate reorganization of debt, required government budgetary reform and hoped for economic improvements.
A final similarity: The Virgin Islands’ economy, like that of Puerto Rico, is locked into a currency union with the United States from which, in my opinion, it should be allowed to escape. This would add external to the imperative internal adjustment, as the debt day of reckoning arrives.
Image by Peter Hermes Furian