Let’s ask a simple and necessary question: Why in the world is the interest on Puerto Rican bonds triple-tax exempt all over the United States, when no U.S. state or municipality gets such favored treatment?

The municipal bond market got used to that disparity, but in fact, it makes no sense. It is an obvious market distortion, on top of being unfair to all the other municipal borrowers. It helped lure investors and savers, and mutual funds as intermediaries, into supporting years of overexpansion of Puerto Rican government debt, ultimately with disastrous results. It is yet another example of a failed government notion to push credit in some politically favored direction. Investors profited from their special exemption from state and local income taxes on interest paid by Puerto Rico; now, in exchange, they will have massive losses on their principal. Just how big the losses will be is still uncertain, but they are certainly big.

Where did that triple-tax exemption come from?  In fact, from the Congress in 1917. The triple-tax exemption is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year by the entry of the government of Puerto Rico into effective bankruptcy. Said the 1917 Jones-Shafroth Act:

All bonds issued by the government of Porto Rico or of by its authority, shall be exempt from taxation by the Government of the United States, or by the government of Porto Rico or of any political or municipal subdivision thereof, or by any State, or by any county, municipality, or other municipal subdivision of any State or Territory of the United States, or by the District of Columbia.

That’s clear enough. But why?  Said U.S. Sen. James K. Vardaman, D-Miss., at the time: “Those people are underdeveloped, and it is for the purpose of enabling them to develop their country to make the securities attractive by extending that exemption.” All right, but 100 years of a special favor to encourage development is enough, especially when the result was instead to encourage massive overborrowing and insolvency.

It’s time to end Puerto Rico’s triple-tax exemption for any newly issued bonds (as there will be again someday). As we observe the unhappy 100th birthday of this financial distortion, it’s time to give it a definitive farewell.

Image by Filipe Frazao

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