The government of Puerto Rico is broke. Having run a long series of constant budget deficits, financed by escalating borrowing, it has accumulated about $71 billion in debt which cannot be paid as agreed. To this must be added an estimated $44 billion of virtually unfunded public-employee pension liability, giving a total debt problem of at least $115 billion. This dwarfs in size the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit, the former municipal insolvency record holder.

What to do? The situation is complex and what all the needed reforms are is not yet clear, but the first required step is very clear: Congress should promptly create an emergency financial control board to assume oversight and control of the financial operations of the government of Puerto Rico.

This is just as Congress successfully did in 1995 with the insolvent Washington, D.C.; as New York State, with federal encouragement, successfully did with the insolvent New York City in 1975; and as the State of Michigan did with the appointment of an emergency manager for the insolvent City of Detroit in 2013. Such action has also been taken with numerous other municipal debtors.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has complete sovereignty over territories like Puerto Rico and the clear authority to create a financial control board. Given the Puerto Rican government’s severe and longstanding financial mismanagement, Congress also has the responsibility to do so.

This should be the first step, before other possible actions. The sine qua non for financial reform is to establish independent, credible authority over all books, records and other relevant information; to determine what the true overall deficit is; to determine which Puerto Rican government bodies are insolvent, in particular to understand the financial condition of the Government Development Bank, which lends to the others; and to develop fiscal, accounting and structural reforms which will lead to future balanced budgets and control of debt levels. Of course, it must also consider how to address the current excessive and unpayable debt.

Should Puerto Rico follow Washington and New York, working its way through its management, bureaucratic and debt problems without a bankruptcy proceeding? Or should it follow Detroit, with a bankruptcy included along with reforms? The financial control board should be charged with recommending to Congress whether a municipal bankruptcy regime for Puerto Rico should be created.

Does all this take responsibility and power away from the current Puerto Rican government? Of course it does. As one harsh, but accurate, assessment put it: if you are a subsidiary government and “you screw up your finances bad enough,” you are going to get control and direction from somebody else. This is as it is, and as it should be.

In the current century, the government of Puerto Rico has run a budget deficit every single year: 15 years in a row. As debts multiplied, debt service was met by additional borrowing and new debt issued to pay the interest on the existing debt. This is the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

Such debt escalations always end painfully when the lenders belatedly stop lending, as has now occurred in Puerto Rico. What must inevitably follow is reform of fiscal operations, default on or restructuring of debt in bankruptcy or otherwise, bailout funding or combinations of these. What in particular must be done is what the financial control board should take up, preferably sooner rather than later.

As the government of Puerto Rico (“the Commonwealth”) has disclosed:

They themselves have said it. It is high time for an emergency financial control board. The board may be given a politically friendlier name, but its formidable task will be the same.

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