Boxes and wooden crates filled with household items bound for the U.S. mainland are stacked high in the Rosa del Monte moving company’s cavernous warehouse, evidence of the historic rush of people abandoning this beautiful island.
The economy here has been in recession for nearly eight years, crimping tax revenue and pushing the jobless rate to nearly 15 percent. Meanwhile, the government is burdened by staggering debt, spawning comparisons to bankrupt Detroit and forcing lawmakers to severely slash pensions, cut government jobs and raise taxes in a furious effort to avert default.
The implications are serious for Americans outside Puerto Rico both because a taxpayer bailout would be expensive and a default would be far more disruptive than Detroit’s record bankruptcy filing in July. Officials in San Juan and Washington are adamant that a federal bailout is not on the table, but the situation is being closely monitored by the White House, which recently named an advisory team to help Puerto Rican officials navigate the crisis.
The island’s problems have ignited an exodus not seen here since the 1950s, when 500,000 people left for jobs on the mainland. Now Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are again leaving in droves.
Puerto Rico lost 54,000 residents—1.5 percent of its population—between 2010 and 2012 alone. Since recession struck in 2006, the population has shrunk by more than 138,000 to 3.7 million, with the vast majority of the outflow headed to the mainland.
The brutal combination of a long recession, a shrinking population and overwhelming debt has left Puerto Rico’s political leaders struggling to manage a conundrum: How do they tame at least $70 billion in debt while marshaling the resources to grow a shrinking economy and battle corrosive social problems, including a homicide rate that is nearly six times the U.S. average?
Not long after Padilla took office in January, Wall Street debt rating agencies downgraded the island’s bonds to just one rung above junk status. Like states, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico cannot file for bankruptcy. Also, Puerto Rico’s constitution offers bondholders strong guarantees that they would be paid before pensioners and public workers if the government went broke.
Still, with Detroit’s bankruptcy filing fresh in the minds of investors, the downgrade ignited widespread concern that the island was sliding toward default, which would hurt many investors across the United States. Because of their high yields and exemption from federal, state and local taxes, Puerto Rican bonds are held by three out of four municipal bond mutual funds, according to Morningstar, a market research firm.
For decades, Puerto Rico’s economy was powered by U.S. firms that set up factories here that allowed them to tap a large, relatively low-cost labor market and to book profits under the favorable tax laws, while keeping cash-intensive research and development operations—and the accompanying big tax write-offs—on the mainland.
First, shoe factories and textile mills dominated the economic landscape. Later, pharmaceutical firms turned the island into a hub of drug manufacturing. According to one investor research report, 16 of the 20 top-selling drugs in the United States are made on the island.
But eventually many of the clothing plants moved to more promising ports. Then a series of key drug patents expired, contributing to a sharp decline in manufacturing. Since 1996, the number of factory jobs in Puerto Rico plummeted from 160,000 to 75,000.
And while government workers make up about a quarter of the commonwealth’s workforce—much higher than the U.S. average of 16 percent—their ranks are shrinking as the pervasive debt and economic problems careen toward a reckoning. Now, just over 41 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans are in a job or even looking for one.