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Lessons for Puerto Rico from ... Arkansas?

posted by Jason Kilborn

I did not realize that a US state had defaulted on its bonds, offering a historical comparative example of the difficulties facing Puerto Rico, its creditors, and mostly its citizens if the mess there is not subjected to an orderly, judicially supervised debt cleanup process of some kind. In a new working paper from the Cleveland Fed, O. Emre Ergungor tells the interesting story of the Depression-era default by Arkansas on various road construction bonds and its messy and politically charged path to a workout. A couple of apparent lessons are troubling. First, reaffirming the aphorism that $#!@ rolls downhill, most of the pain was suffered by Arkansas citizens and ordinary creditors, with bondholders pulling every available lever to ensure a soft landing for themselves. Ergungor sums up this lesson nicely: "in the absence of a dedicated judicial process for preserving the governmental functions of a state in debt renegotiations, sovereignty offers meager protections for the interests of the general public." Second, in a prophetic warning about bailouts, Ergungor describes the intervention of the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide liquidity for a refinancing of the workout bonds years later. As one would expect, a Chicago Tribune article took the feds to task for helping Arkansas in this way, insisting that the RFC chief "ought to be willing to to do as much for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and all the rest of the states." I know Illinois would surely appreciate some federal support for its current behemoth pension burden. If the Executive intervenes in the Puerto Rico situation today, will we see another Tribune article like the one that criticized selective federal intervention for Arkansas? Does it matter that, technically, it is Puerto Rico's sub-units that are in distress, not the Territory itself? I struggle to understand even what all the issues are in the Puerto Rico debate, but Ergungor's paper helps me to put at least the financial problems in some useful context.

Comments

Unlike Arkansas, Mississippi not only defaulted on debt, it has repudiated the debt and never paid it. There was a story about this on NPR last year

http://www.npr.org/2015/07/01/419240752/how-mississippi-defaulted-on-7-million-worth-of-bonds-in-1841

This may be a sophomoric statement but the lesson gleaned from the history of municipal bankruptcies seems to be that it is easier for municipalities to over spend their way into debt than obtaining bankruptcy forgiveness from that debt; whereas, that is not true for individuals. All that separates an individual from bankruptcy is the filing fee, and attorney fees if you use a lawyer. This seems backwards. You might think Congress would help another legislative body reorganize its debts more easily than the masses.

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