Two Of Puerto Rico’s New Overlords Are Accused Of Helping Create Its Debt Crisis

A new report calls for the former bank executives to quit the island's fiscal control board.

Activists are calling for the resignation of two members of Puerto Rico’s fiscal control board over the roles they previously played in boosting bank profits at the expense of the island’s financial health.

The control board, which has veto power over major Puerto Rican budget decisions, was created by Congress in June as the island foundered under $70 billion in public debt.

A new report, titled “Pirates of the Caribbean,” argues that control board members José Ramon Gonzalez and Carlos Garcia should be held accountable for their part in plunging the island into debt. The paper, released Thursday, comes from two progressive coalitions, Hedge Clippers and the Committee for Better Banks, which both seek to combat the political power of financial institutions.

Before they were appointed to the control board, Gonzalez and Garcia moved between top positions in Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), which issues the island’s government bonds, and Banco Santander, the Spanish-owned mega-bank that was buying and structuring the vast majority of those same obligations.

The report alleges that Garcia, Gonzalez and other executives at Santander presided over an explosion of lucrative underwriting that allowed the financially strapped island to continue borrowing huge sums, but on increasingly risky terms. The structure of those loans, the report suggests, was more favorable to Santander and other financial institutions than to the government ― and thus the taxpayers.

Santander participated in the underwriting of $61.2 billion of the island’s $70 billion in debt, according to the analysis. The report estimates that more than $1 billion went toward management fees for Santander and other banks. The island shelled out another estimated $735 million to the banks to cancel interest rate swaps ― bets the government had made on future interest rates.

“Santander, as well as former Santander executives who now serve on the fiscal control board, must pay the price.”

- Stephen Lerner of the Hedge Clippers coalition

For the loans it underwrote, Santander frequently set up onerous payment structures using exotic financial tools, the report says. For example, the Santander loans cost Puerto Rico $1.5 billion in “capitalized” interest payments ― that is, the island was also borrowing to pay the interest on its loans. And complicated 2009 bond issue that Santander underwrote netted Puerto Rico $139 million, but required it to pay back $730 million ― five times the value of the loan ― according to the report.

Gonzalez and Garcia held top jobs at the private bank as it profited off Puerto Rican taxpayers, when they weren’t running the government entity that was issuing those bonds.

Gonzalez, who had been president of the GDB from 1986 to 1989, became head of Santander Securities, the arm of the bank that underwrote Puerto Rican debt, in 1996. In 2002, he moved up to CEO of Santander’s Puerto Rican holding company, a job he held until 2008.

Garcia similarly began working in Santander’s Puerto Rican operations in the late 1990s and held a number of leadership roles. He left the bank in 2009 to become president of the GDB and returned to Santander in 2011 for another top executive job.

The revolving door similarly spun for others in Puerto Rico’s banking community. Juan Carlos Batlle, another Santander executive, took Garcia’s place as chief of the GDB in 2011. At the same time, Batlle’s brother Fernando left a top post at the GDB to head up Santander Securities.

As Puerto Rico’s debt rose, the island’s elected officials began pushing the burden of repayment onto the public. Beginning in 2009, then-Gov. Luis Fortuño instituted major austerity measures, laying off tens of thousands of public employees.

“Santander and other banks purposefully manipulated a government desperate to avoid financial ruin and shared in over a billion in collected profit as it pushed Puerto Ricans deeper and deeper into nearly unrecoverable poverty,” Stephen Lerner of the Hedge Clippers coalition said in a statement accompanying the report. “Santander, as well as former Santander executives who now serve on the fiscal control board, must pay the price.”

Governor-elect Ricardo Rossello will formally lead Puerto Rico starting in January, but the fiscal control board will still have power over key decisions.
Governor-elect Ricardo Rossello will formally lead Puerto Rico starting in January, but the fiscal control board will still have power over key decisions.
Alvin Baez/Reuters

Hedge Clippers and the Committee for Better Banks, which held a press conference to promote the report Thursday outside Santander Holdings USA headquarters in Boston, are asking the bank to refund the underwriting fees it charged Puerto Rico and urging Garcia and Gonzalez to resign from the fiscal control board.

They also want the control board and the Puerto Rican government to allow a government-sponsored commission currently auditing the island’s public debt to complete its work with adequate funding. Governor-elect Ricardo Rossello, who will assume office in January, has not been completely clear about his plans for the commission.

It is unlikely that Santander, Gonzalez and Garcia will agree to the activists’ demands.

Neither Garcia nor Gonzalez responded to a request for comment.

Santander Holdings USA declined to address the demands of the report, but offered a general statement about the bank’s interaction with the Puerto Rican government.

“In the financial services industry, it is not uncommon for business leaders to work in the private sector and then move on to serve in government,” said spokeswoman Ann Davis.

“It is also common industry practice for financial institutions, like Santander, to underwrite bonds and issue financial instruments to support economic growth ...,” she added. “The public and private sectors have guidelines in place to prevent conflicts of interest and Santander has always required strict adherence to these guidelines to ensure ethical business practices.”

But Thursday’s report provides new ammunition to the people and groups in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States who have long argued that banks and other financial institutions should be held to account for their role in facilitating and exacerbating Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

“This report provides more evidence that the people who created the crisis also profited from the crisis,” said professor Charles Venator, a specialist in Puerto Rican politics at the University of Connecticut.

“This report provides more evidence that the people who created the crisis also profited from the crisis.”

- University of Connecticut professor Charles Venator

The average Puerto Rican has not similarly benefited. The austerity measures adopted to address the massive debt ― which many experts believe Puerto Rico will never be able to pay off ― have sparked an increase in poverty and a decrease in public health. Puerto Ricans have flocked to the mainland U.S. to escape deteriorating living conditions. The island’s population dropped almost 7 percent from 2010 to 2015, leaving fewer residents to generate the revenue needed to fund the government.

Now the fiscal control board is demanding more austerity, insisting that outgoing Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla scale back his proposed budget.

To be sure, the authors of the new report have their own stake in how the island chooses to distribute the financial pain. Both Hedge Clippers and the Committee for Better Banks have among their coalition members labor unions representing workers in Puerto Rico, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Communications Workers of America.

But the composition of the control board is a matter of concern for all Puerto Ricans, said Bartlett Naylor, a financial policy advocate at Public Citizen.

“If Puerto Ricans are required to suffer broken promises as debt is restructured, the least they should receive is oversight from officials completely disconnected from the mess-making, let alone those who profit from it,” Naylor said.

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