A reorganization plan for the debt of the government of Puerto Rico was submitted to the court Sept. 27 by the Puerto Rico Oversight Board. It covers $35 billion of general obligation and other bonds, which it would reduce to $12 billion.

On average, that is about a 66 percent haircut for the creditors, who thus get 34 cents on the dollar, compared to par. Pretty steep losses for the bondholders, but steep losses were inevitable given the over-borrowing of the Puerto Rican government and the previous over-optimism of the lenders. Proposed haircuts vary by class of bonds, but run up to 87 percent, or a payment of 13 cents on the dollar, for the hapless bondholders of the Puerto Rican Employee Retirement System.

In addition to its defaulted bonds, the Puerto Rican government has about $50 billion in unfunded pension obligations, which are equivalent to unsecured debt. But the pensioners do much better than the bondholders. Larger pensions are subject to a maximum reduction of 8.5 percent, while 74 percent of current and future retirees will have no reduction. Those with a reduction have the chance, if the Puerto Rican government does better than its plan over any of the next 15 years, to have the cuts restored.

The Oversight Board’s statement does not make apparent what the overall haircut to pensions is, but it is obviously far less than for the bondholders. “The result is that retirees get a better deal than almost any other creditor group,” as The New York Times accurately put it. This may be considered good and equitable, or unfair and political, depending on who you are, but it is certainly notable. The Times adds: “Legal challenges await the plan from bondholders who believe the board was far too generous to Puerto Rico’s retired government workers.”

The Puerto Rican debt reorganization plan demonstrates once again, in municipal insolvencies and bankruptcies, unfunded pension obligations are de facto a senior claim compared to any other unsecured debt, including general obligation bonds that pledge the full resources and taxing power of the issuing government. This is not because they are legally senior, but because they are politically senior.

By running up their unfunded pensions, municipalities have not only stressed their own finances, but have effectively subordinated the bondholders. When it comes to unfunded pensions, the Puerto Rico outcome, like that of Detroit and others, announces: Bondholders, Watch Out!

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