What went wrong?: The Puerto Rican Debt Crisis and the “Treasury Put”
What went wrong? Why did seemingly rational bond investors continue to purchase Puerto Rican debt with only a modest risk premium, even though the macroeconomic fundamentals were dismal? Given gloomy macroeconomic fundamentals and relatively low risk premia, investors were either stunningly myopic/misinformed, or Puerto Rican debt was implicitly insured by the U.S. Treasury.
This paper examines the latter hypothesis, which we label the “Treasury Put.” The expectation of a federal bailout was perfectly reasonable given past behavior by the Federal Government, starting with the prior bailout of the city of New York. Evaluating the Treasury Put hypothesis with a minimal set of assumptions is possible given three unique features – the dire fiscal and economic conditions in Puerto Rico, a characteristic of Puerto Rican bond issuance, and a “seismic shock.” Regarding the second feature, Puerto Rico issued both uninsured and insured general obligation bonds on the same day and, in many cases, with the exact same maturity. The associated bond price data allow for an accurate computation of the risk premia on Puerto Rican bonds. The third feature is the non-bailout of the city of Detroit in 2013 that effectively extinguished the Treasury Put. Puerto Rican risk premia were stable before the Detroit bankruptcy and bracketed by the risk premia on Corporate Aaa and Baa bonds. However, after the Detroit bankruptcy, risk premia rose dramatically, thus documenting the existence of a sizeable Treasury Put of 350 basis points and a significant misallocation of capital to Puerto Rico. In effect, the Treasury Put is a form of regulatory forbearance. Institutional reforms that would eliminate the Treasury Put are considered, but none are found satisfactory.