Many of the people hit hardest by the massive collapse of the market for Puerto Rico bonds have been seniors and retirees, for two main reasons. First, seniors and retirees have the most amount of money available to invest on average. They have worked for their entire lifetimes, dutifully and diligently saving for a comfortable retirement. This means that these individuals are highly desirable and sought after clients for brokers, whose income is largely dependent upon how much money they are managing for people. This also means that when brokers give bad advice, seniors and retirees have the most to lose. Sadly, they are also the least able to recover from those losses, as they have little, if any, time left working to try to save and replace what was lost.
For the last several years, UBS Puerto Rico has been pushing Puerto Rico bonds and UBS’s proprietary Puerto Rico bond funds on many if not most of its clients. Previous posts have discussed what many of those recommendations have entailed, and why they were inappropriate for most people. The second reason seniors have been some of the hardest hit is that the sales pitch for those bonds were very simple. Brokers would explain that municipal bonds are traditionally one of the safest investments available. Brokers would explain that retirees could also use those bonds to generate regular income for themselves, and, best of all, the income was tax free! The bonds practically sell themselves.
However, what most seniors and retirees did not understand, and what the UBS brokers apparently were not telling them, is that Puerto Rico bonds were actually very high risk investments. UBS was artificially propping up the market for the bonds so that they appeared safer and more stable than they truly were. Moreover, the bonds are backed by Puerto Rico, in varying ways. UBS was well aware that Puerto Rico was suffering massive problems with its economy and tax base, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for Puerto Rico to support the debt it was carrying. Finally, UBS’s recommendations to invest heavily, if not exclusively, in Puerto Rico bonds changed what is commonly a conservative investment, municipal bonds, into a speculative investment.
When the bottom of the market began to fall out earlier this year, many seniors and retirees were the hardest hit. Many are no longer sure that they will have enough money to support themselves in retirement, and yet they have very limited options. There is virtually no market for the UBS bond funds, so it is difficult to sell them and prevent future losses. At the same time, these retirees have no meaningful way to replace the losses. For many, the only possible recourse is litigation.