How puerto rico’s debt created a perfect storm before the storm npr power in costa rica

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Like most governments, Puerto Rico preferred to borrow money through the sale of bonds. The island would take an investor’s money and essentially give him an IOU — a promise to pay the money back with interest. Investors liked the deal because they could earn that interest tax-free.

"Fund managers, they will not admit this now, but when Puerto Rico was selling debt like pancakes, they loved Puerto Rico debt," Marxuach said. "You would put … these Puerto Rico bonds into your portfolio and since they had slightly higher interest rates and no taxes attached to them, you immediately looked like a genius. You just bumped up the entire return."

"All the major banks in New York would come to Puerto Rico on a regular basis to pitch deals," said Capacete, a former branch manager for UBS, the largest broker-dealer in Puerto Rico. "They make commissions. They make fees. This is kind of like a moneymaking machine. As long as there are transactions coming and going, they’re making a ton of money."

But Capacete said that in 2011, he and other bankers started realizing what many bond investors hadn’t yet figured out: Puerto Rico was in trouble. There was too much debt. And instead of moving away from bonds — and keeping the shaky investments out of their clients’ portfolios — Capacete says the opposite happened. He said banks pushed brokers to sell more bonds.

And then, Capacete says, he learned it was even worse than it looked. He says a client warned him that some brokers on the island were pushing Puerto Rican investors — who already had so much of their retirement or personal savings in these special funds — to borrow still more money, and invest that in the funds too. He says he sent emails complaining to the bank.

UBS declined NPR and Frontline’s request for an interview but said the loan terms were fully disclosed to clients and that Capacete is a disgruntled former employee who has sued the bank. The bank said the loan program as a whole did not violate financial regulations, but that it had fired the one broker it discovered had been using the program incorrectly. And it pointed to a separate case where federal regulators determined the bank had not misled its customers.

Eventually federal regulators investigated and found the bank should have had a system in place to prevent the practice. They fined UBS $34 million for the loan scheme and other problems. They also fined UBS and four other banks for putting clients at risk in the special Puerto Rican funds.

Once again, at a time when you might think Puerto Rico and the banks would turn away from the bond business, they did the opposite. In 2014, Puerto Rico and a group of banks teamed up for another bond deal. At $3.5 billion, it was the largest municipal junk bond offering in U.S. history.

Government records show banks had been lending Puerto Rico hundreds of millions of dollars and making other investments there in the years before the financial troubles began. And according to bond documents from the 2014 deal, nearly a quarter of the entire bond went to those banks.