Muni Bond ETFs: Puerto Rico in Perspective

ETF Trends

On August 26, 2013, Barron’s trumpeted on its cover page, “Puerto Rico in Trouble.” This article by Andrew Bary may be a loud timpani roll for those who own the debt of the Commonwealth either directly or indirectly. But I do not agree that it offers the thunderous crescendo that seems the intent of the author.

In fact, I was tempted to reply with a response that likely was too shrill given my understanding of the realities of politics and economics on the island. However, I do echo the sentiments offered by Richard P. Larkin, Senior Vice President, Director of Credit Analysis at H.J. Sims, in his response to the Barron’s article which I feel is appropriate to reflect here.

With merit, here is how Mr. Larkin presented his views [italicized text below taken in its entirety from Mr. Larkin’s piece]:

“Some points in the Barron’s article that beg for a response:

  • Puerto Rico debt carried most risk among major tax-exempt issuers : I’m sorry, but that award goes to over $60 billion of securitized tobacco bonds issued across the country, with most already rated below investment grade with defaults projected as early as 2030.
  • …whether the federal government would step in to aid Puerto Rico… : Raising this as even a possibility demonstrates the naïveté of some pundits. The U.S. will never step in to bail out a U.S. State, municipality, or even a Commonwealth like Puerto Rico. And in Puerto Rico’s case, as I said in 2012, there is no need to.
  • Puerto Rico’s debt is 10 times the average of the 50 states : The author fails to recognize that Puerto Rico citizens pay no federal income tax, and therefore do not have the burden of the federal government’s deficits/national debt. If you add that to other state’s burdens to make them comparable to Puerto Rico, the story would take on a totally different twist.

The Barron’s article also fails to point out some unique strengths of Puerto Rico, which do not exist for other states, like owning its own bank (the Government Development Bank, or GDB), which gives this island issuer more market flexibility than most states. Or the fact that the Commonwealth’s electric, water and sewer utilities are legal monopolies.

Why do I remain bullish on Puerto Rico? Because under the previous Governor, as well as current Governor Padilla, they are not only “talking the talk”, they are “walking the walk”. Even Barron’s notes these: major tax increases to curb deficits, tax and fee increases in utilities and the transportation sectors, and a commitment to jump-starting the economy as best it can given tight fiscal policies.”

Yes, Puerto Rico is a significantly large issuer of triple tax-exempt debt and it has found its way into a good number of actively as well as passively managed municipal bond funds all across the country. And as redemptions from bond funds and other accounts have fueled selling pressures, the liquidity ascribed to Puerto Rico debt makes it an easy name for portfolio managers to put on their sell lists. The result has been a dramatic rise in yields for all these bonds and underperformance (-19.76% YTD as of September 9, 2013 based on the Barclays Puerto Rico Municipal Bond Index 1 .

I am not yet convinced that it is a foregone conclusion that Puerto Rico will go down the same path as that of Detroit.

James Colby is a portfolio manager and senior municipal strategist at Market Vectors ETFs.

1 The Barclays Puerto Rico Municipal Bond Index is considered representative of the broad market for investment-grade, tax-exempt bonds issued in Puerto Rico, with a maturity of at least one year.

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