NEW YORK — On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump casually told Geraldo Rivera on Fox News that the United States would have to wipe out $75 billion in debt owed by Puerto Rico to bondholders around the world.
Wall Street promptly freaked out, sending Puerto Rican bonds into a tailspin and leading the White House to move swiftly to clean up Trump’s seemingly offhand remarks.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration indicated it has no current plans to take the unprecedented, politically dangerous and probably illegal step of wiping out the owners of Puerto Rico’s bonds in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Trump’s own budget chief quickly walked the president’s comments back.
“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said on CNN. “We are not going to deal right now with those fundamental difficulties that Puerto Rico had before the storm.”
Added Mulvaney: “Puerto Rico’s going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances.”
Numerous senior administration officials and a White House spokesman did not respond to requests on Wednesday morning for further comment on Trump’s remarks.
Mulvaney was cleaning up after a remarkable Trump interview that sent Wall Street bond traders and holders of Puerto Rico’s debt scrambling overnight Tuesday. The island’s general obligation bonds dropped from 56 cents on the dollar to just 36 cents early on Wednesday as investors tried to figure out exactly what the White House might actually do.
The chaos on Wall Street came after Trump told Fox of Puerto Rico: “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that.”
Seemingly in populist, bash-Wall-Street mode, Trump singled out Goldman Sachs, which has produced many of the administration’s top economic officials, as a big holder of Puerto Rican debt. “I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”
Goldman officials said on Wednesday that the bank does hold Puerto Rican debt, but it is mostly in client accounts. Other big bond mutual fund holders of the island’s debt include OppenheimerFunds, Franklin Templeton, BlackRock and T. Rowe Price. This means that a good portion of the debt is held in mutual funds for average investors. The debt is cheap, yields around 8 percent and is exempt from local, state and federal taxes, making it an attractive target for investment funds.
Trump’s comments aside, there is already a process in place for dealing with Puerto Rico’s crushing debt burden.
Congress passed a law last year to grant the commonwealth what essentially amounts to a super-bankruptcy, in an effort to allow Puerto Rico to begin its recovery from that debt, which includes over $50 billion in unfunded pension liabilities to workers in addition to the more than $70 billion owed to bondholders.
The law was subject to attack ads accusing Republicans who drafted it of a “bailout” of the commonwealth, though no money went toward Puerto Rico’s debt.
The president has no direct power over the territory’s debt, though he can fire members of the unpopular federal board that was set up to oversee the island’s finances and nominate others.
But that could throw into turmoil the work that’s being done by the board and the commonwealth government toward reforming Puerto Rico’s finances.
The board already took the most drastic action it can on the debt, filing for a judge to essentially enter all of it into the special bankruptcy process that Congress created. The board has also started an investigation into whether any of Puerto Rico’s bond sales violated the law and may be invalid.
In a letter to congressional leadership sent late Tuesday night, the board asked for quick federal action, including the authorization of a short-term, low-interest loan to keep Puerto Rico’s government functioning.
The board urged “the maximum federal assistance to Puerto Rico to help it respond to and to recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”
The letter said: “This federal assistance should come in the form of grants and reimbursements to assist Puerto Rico in responding to the catastrophic damage it has suffered, and pursuant to an emergency liquidity program, low-interest loans to assist Puerto Rico in responding to its cashflow deficiencies.”
“Immediate and bold assistance is urgently needed to minimize loss of life, support critical emergency response efforts, and provide tools to support the island’s recovery.”
Wall Street analysts mostly dismissed Trump’s comments to Fox, suggesting the president mostly wanted to show sympathy for Puerto Rico after days of criticism for his response to the powerful hurricane.
“Our view is that President Trump’s comments regarding bondholders should be taken seriously, but not literally,” Compass Point Research and Trading’s Isaac Boltansky wrote in a note to clients. “These statements were meant to empathize with Puerto Rico and possibly even catalyze negotiations, but they fall far short of a feasible plan.”
Said David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors: “No idea what [Trump] means. It certainly threw a curve at markets. There is a federal oversight system already in place. The pre-hurricane debt needs restructuring and this is widely known. Trump is an enigma.”
Some Democrats embraced Trump’s remarks, saying Washington should move to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt, underscoring how challenging the comments could be for Trump on the right, where a bailout for the island would be highly unpopular.
“If ever there was a case for a full debt write-off, it’s Puerto Rico,” former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote on Twitter.
Other Democrats privately compared Trump’s remarks to those by former President Barack Obama when he ripped Chrysler stock owners during the 2009 financial crisis. “He sounds a lot like Obama did back then,” one former senior Obama administration official said on Wednesday.
“I am not sure Trump isn’t ultimately correct, though,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at the Leuthold Group. “Most likely, some Puerto Rico debt will have to be forgiven or written off.”
He added: “This was probably the case before the hurricane, but given the damage, it is most surely the case now. This, of course, would have many implications for current Puerto Rico bonds and their future ability to raise capital.”