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Puerto Rico Crashing

Published: October 29, 2013
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Source: EPJ

Puerto Rico, an American territory, risks a Greek-style bust. With $70 billion of debt outstanding, the equivalent of 70% of its GDP, it is more indebted than any of America’s 50 states. (Puerto Rico is not technically a state, but its bonds are treated as if it were.) Yields on its bonds have soared as high as 10%, as investors fret it may be heading for a default.

Like Greece, Puerto Rico is a chronically uncompetitive place locked in a currency union with a richer, more productive neighbour. The island’s economy is also dominated by a vast, inefficient near-Athenian public sector. And, as with Greece, there are fears that a chaotic default could precipitate a far bigger crisis by driving away investors, and pushing up borrowing costs in America’s near-$4-trillion market for state and local bonds[...]

For decades Puerto Rico has been sustained by federal subsidies. Its people, far poorer than the American average, get lots of transfers, from pensions to food stamps. Until 2006 the economy was buoyed by tax incentives for American firms that manufactured there. As drug companies took advantage, the territory became a vast medicinal maquiladora.

This tax break disappeared in 2006, and Puerto Rico’s economy has shrunk virtually every year since. It has been able to keep on borrowing, thanks to another subsidy: interest on Puerto Rican debt is exempt from state, local and federal taxes in America, making it artificially attractive to investors.

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