October 8, 2017

Despite the rhetoric, Trump can’t just “wave goodbye” to Puerto Rico’s debt

Filed under: Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Megan McArdle on the financial plight that Puerto Rico was facing even before the hurricane season began:

… the fact remains that Puerto Rico is not going to be able to pay all of its debts. Prior to the hurricane, the territory had $73 billion in outstanding debt, and a population of 3.4 million people. That’s approximately $21,500 for every man, woman and child on the island – just about enough to buy each of them a brand new Mini Cooper, provided that they don’t insist on the sport package or the heated seats.

Puerto Rico couldn’t afford to buy 3.4 million Mini Coopers before; they certainly can’t now that Maria has washed out so many roads. Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s GDP was around $100 billion, meaning that repaying its debt would consume nearly nine months of everything the island earned. And while there will probably be a brief bump in economic activity as disaster relief funds pour in and the destruction is cleared away, over the long term the hurricane represents a huge setback: businesses destroyed, people killed or injured, funds that could be generating economic growth instead diverted to simply replacing what has been lost.

So whatever President Trump does, or does not do, investors in Puerto Rican bonds are going to have to take a substantial haircut. The problem is, we’re not going to wipe out the debt entirely. And even if we could, it wouldn’t be enough to get Puerto Rico back to economic or fiscal health.

“If it’s that bad,” you may be thinking, “surely we ought to simply wipe out the debt holders? After all, they’re investment professionals. They can afford to take the loss; ordinary Puerto Ricans can’t.” The problem is that most of the folks holding Puerto Rico’s debt aren’t vulture hedge funds sitting on wads of ill-gotten gains; the overwhelming majority of the debt is held by ordinary folks who buy bonds or bond funds. Like, say, your parents. Or maybe you. And also, a lot of Puerto Ricans, who would be hit very hard if the value of their investments were wiped out.

How did Puerto Rico get so deeply into debt? Step forward the federal and Puerto Rican governments to take a bow:

The operations of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, for example, defy belief: It essentially gave unlimited free power to municipalities and government-owned entities, which used it to do things like operate skating rinks in the tropics. Everywhere you look, you see signs of a government struggling to perform basic tasks: collect taxes, maintain the infrastructure, improve the health system. In the jargon of development economists, the island lacks “state capacity”: It is simply unable to exert the amount of power over its operations that we on the mainland mostly take for granted.

But you can’t entirely blame the Puerto Rican government for the state of the underlying economy, which is what had plunged the island into a bankruptcy crisis even before the hurricane. For that you have to look to the federal government, which eliminated a tax break that had given companies incentives to locate in Puerto Rico, and then oversaw a financial crisis that sent them into an even deeper spiral. We also made sure that a relatively poor island was forced to adopt the federal minimum wage, which was too high for the local labor market. That has contributed to the 11.5 percent unemployment rate. And Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar, leaving it unable to adjust monetary policy to overcome economic stagnation.

June 17, 2017

Puerto Rico votes for statehood

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Andrew Heaton discusses the recent vote by Puerto Ricans to apply for full statehood within the United States and why that might be a good thing for all concerned:

Puerto Rico voted to become a U.S. state this week. Needless to say, we should all be deeply concerned about the island’s engorged debt, destructive fits of socialism, and terrifying chupacabras.

But Puerto Rican statehood also represents a unique opportunity to reform American federalism. Accepting a new state with markedly different problems and programs means acknowledging that states aren’t interchangeable. We should welcome Puerto Rico and, while we’re redefining what constitutes our union, re-examine the power dynamic between Washington and the states.

Puerto Rico is a test case in one-size-fits-all solutions and federal intervention ruining an economy. The island has significantly lower income and productivity than the continental United States, but it is still subjected to a national minimum wage crafted for the mainland. That disparity squeezes entry-level jobs out of the market and ratchets up unemployment rates. The slumping job market is worsened by the fact that federal programs like food stamps, Social Security benefits, education grants, and disability payments aren’t pegged to local cost of living. In a region poorer than America’s poorest state, it’s not surprising that people would opt for generous federal handouts over scrambling for jobs the minimum wage hasn’t yet outlawed. Puerto Rico would benefit from an opt-out clause on the mininum wage — an option that should be available to all states.

Because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory and not a state, it’s more vulnerable to federal intervention. The Jones-Shafroth Act exempted Puerto Rican bonds from local, state, and federal taxes. The feds might as well have sprinkled cocaine and cronuts over the bonds. Investors bought dumpsters full of Puerto Rico’s sovereign debt, leading the island to further lurch into exorbitant deficit spending.

Federal trade laws also hobble Puerto Rican prosperity. The Jones Act prohibits foreign ships from moving goods between American ports. That means a foreign flagged vessel can’t stop at Puerto Rico on its way to or from the mainland, but must instead offload and reload goods at another American port so a more expensive U.S. ship can transport them. Peter Schiff explains: “Even though median incomes in Puerto Rico are just over half that of the poorest U.S. state, thanks to the Jones Act, the cost of living is actually higher than the average state.” The Jones Act would be a great issue to bring up when Congress deliberates on Puerto Rican accession. Abolishing it would benefit everyone, most of all Puerto Rico.

May 28, 2017

Indochina – Cyprus – Puerto Rico I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Europe, France, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 27 May 2017

What do Indochina, Cyprus and Puerto Rico have in common? They are all featured in our newest episode of Out of The Trenches where Indy answers all your questions about World War 1.

October 6, 2015

Puerto Rico’s minimum wage experiment

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

J.R. Ireland describes what happened to Puerto Rico’s economy when the minimum wage was raised to the mainland level by congress in 1974:

Prior to 1974, Puerto Rico had its own minimum wage and was not tethered to the general American wage. Then, in their infinite wisdom, the US Congress decided to normalize the minimum wage across all US territories and passed legislation making Puerto Rico’s minimum wage the same as the American wage had always been.

Well what happened next, you might ask? The economy imploded. Puerto Rico had an unemployment rate around 12% and an employment to population ratio of approximately 78% pretty much continuously between 1960 and 1974. The numbers had gone up a bit — they had come down a bit — but overall, year in and year out, you could look at Puerto Rico and be sure that the unemployment rate would be between 10 and 14 percent and the employment to population ration would be between 75 and 80 percent. You could set your watch by this kind of consistency.

Then Puerto Rico’s minimum wage was raised substantially beginning in 1974. The Puerto Rican unemployment rate then proceeded to increase for four consecutive years until it peaked at 20%. It roughly plateaued for half a decade or so, and then it went up again until Puerto Rico had an unemployment rate of 25% by 1984. Meanwhile, the employment to population ratio fell from 78% to 60% and has never recovered.

It is not just me pointing out the absolutely catastrophic consequences of the minimum wage increase in Puerto Rico — the National Bureau on Economic Research agrees. According to them:

    Imposing the U.S.-level minimum reduced total island employment by 8-10 percent compared to the level that would have prevailed had the minimum been the same proportion of average wages as in the United States. In addition, it reallocated labor across industries, greatly reducing jobs in low-wage sectors that had to raise minima substantially to reach federal levels. (3) Migrants from Puerto Rico to the United States are drawn largely from persons jobless on the island, with characteristics that make them liable to have been disemployed by the minimum wage. As the Puerto Rican minimum rose toward U.S. levels, the education of migrants fell below that of nonmigrants. (4) Migration was critical in allowing Puerto Rico to institute U.S.-level minimum wages and played a major role in the long term growth of real earnings in Puerto Rico by reducing the labor supply and raising the average qualifications of workers on the island.

In other words, the minimum wage increase caused massive unemployment, forced hundreds of thousands of unemployed Puerto Ricans to flee the island because there were no jobs, and the only reason the entire territory wasn’t rendered destitute is because the poorest Puerto Ricans all moved to Chicago or New York rather than choosing to remain unemployed on the island itself.

July 19, 2013

Protectionist law from 1920 strangling economies of Hawaii and Puerto Rico

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Keli’i Akina wants the US government to amend or (better) repeal the 1920 Jones Act:

What’s the best way to destroy the economy of an island or largely coastal region? From the Peloponnesian War to the 1960s confrontation between Cuba and the United States, the answer has been to impose an embargo. In effect, that’s what the United States has been doing for decades to its non-contiguous regions such as Hawaii and Puerto Rico as well as Alaska and much of the East and West Coasts. The culprit in this economically self-defeating practice is a little-understood federal statute called the Jones Act. The 1920 maritime cabotage law specifies that ships carrying cargo between two American ports must: 1) be built in the United States, 2) be 75% owned by U.S. citizens, 3) be largely manned by a United States citizen crew, and 4) fly the United States’ flag.

In 2012, the Federal Reserve Board of New York issued a warning to the federal government that, unless Puerto Rico is granted an exemption from these Jones Act rules, its economy would likely tank. Following suit, the World Bank released a statement announcing that it will cut back its financing of projects in Puerto Rico and begin encouraging investors to look to Jamaica as a new international shipping hub. Puerto Rico’s legislature, governor, and resident commissioner in Congress have voiced loud objections. They join a growing chorus of outrage which includes Alaska, whose legislature has passed a law (Sec. 44.19.035) requiring the governor lobby Congress for reprieve from the Jones Act.

The Jones Act creates an artificial scarcity of ships due to the inefficiency and the extraordinary cost of U.S. ship construction, driving up cargo costs and limiting domestic commerce. Through World War II the United States was a leading producer of merchant ships. Today we build less than one percent of the world’s deep draft tonnage, and the ships produced domestically for the commercial market come at a hefty price.

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