Articles Posted in Puerto Rico Bond Funds

The Puerto Rico government has defaulted on more debt payments that were due to bondholders. The U.S. Territory did not meet the February 1, 2017 due date on $312 million in principal plus interest. The default includes Puerto Rico General Obligation bonds that are supposed to be constitutionally protected.

The Puerto Rican Government Development Bank owes $279 million of the defaulted debt. A spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, however, said that the Commonwealth paid $295 million of interest, which was due on some of the debt.

Puerto Rico owes $70 billion of debt and the island has been embroiled in financial troubles for over three years. The territory has struggled to pay back the debt it owes, defaulting more than once on payments that were due. Last weekend, Puerto Rico’s federal oversight board voted to extend the stay placed on litigation against the island for debt payments that have been missed. The stay was supposed to lift on February 15, 2017. Now that date is May 1, 2017.

The island’s new governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was also granted an extension for when he has to turn in a fiscal blueprint, mapping out how Puerto Rico plans to restore its fiscal health. He now has until February 28, 2017.

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A few weeks after a FINRA arbitration panel ordered UBS (UBS) to pay $18 million in a Puerto Rico bond fraud case, the firm has been ordered to pay another customer a large amount in a similar municipal bond claim. In this latest ruling, the Gomez family claimed they lost $22.87 million from investing in Puerto Rico securities. UBS Puerto Rico (UBS-PR) brokers had purportedly suggested the Gomez family invest in Puerto Rico bonds despite the fact that they wanted investments that were safe. The family relied on the funds from their investments to cover their living expenses.

UBS argued that Mr. Gomez was an experienced investor. The firm claimed that when Gomez opted to concentrate his portfolio in Puerto Rico bonds, he knew what he was doing.

The FINRA panel disagreed with UBS’s assessment, awarding the Gomez family almost $20 million in cash and refusing to enforce almost $6 million is loans the Gomez family owed to UBS. The securities arbitration award to the Gomezes includes $4 million in punitive damages.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has revived a Puerto Rico bond fraud lawsuit brought by Puerto Rico Employee Retirement System bondholders. The pension fund is the largest on the island and the plaintiffs are suing the territory’s government.  The bondholders brought their case after former Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla put into effect a fiscal emergency law that blocked the repayment of the debt owed to the Employee Retirement System, diverting the funds that were promised to the Employee Retirement System as collateral. Invoking the fiscal emergency law has allowed the island to keep up its public services. The pension bondholders, however, are arguing that diverting the money is hurting them because there may not be enough money left to repay the bondholders what they are owed.

Also, under PROMESA (the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) which is the federal rescue law that was passed last year, lawsuits brought against the island over debt payments have been temporarily frozen to give the territory time to restructure the deals it would need so it can try to pay back its $70 billion of debt the Commonwealth owes. However, this has not stopped creditors from suing Puerto Rico for their money. Many bondholders are contending that the fiscal emergency law is not constitutional and that the litigation stay should not affect them.

Although the First Circuit did not rule on whether the funds owed to the bondholders should continue to be repaid, it ordered a lower court to decide whether the case could go forward. The appeals court, however, blocked a similar lawsuit brought by holders of the bonds issued by Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority (PRHTA). Those same bondholders also believe that their collateral was confiscated. The First Circuit said that these plaintiffs did not succeed in demonstrating that they were harmed.

Meantime, in Puerto Rico, a judge is currently deliberating over whether to halt another bond fraud lawsuit by invoking the litigation stay. This case involves general obligation bondholders who are owed $13 billion. The plaintiffs claim that they are the ones who should get the sales tax revenue that was promised to another group of creditors.

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Even after more than three years since the Puerto Rico bonds and closed-end bond funds originally dropped in their initial value, many investors are still waiting to recoup losses they sustained from investing in these securities. Meantime, the U.S. territory continues to deal with its financial woes as it struggles to pay back its $70 billion of debt. At Shepherd Smith Edwards and Kantas, our Puerto Rico municipal bond fraud attorneys have worked hard this year in helping our clients, who are among the thousands of investors from the Commonwealth that suffered significant losses when the island’s securities plunged in value in 2013, in trying to recoup their money.

Below is a recap of some of the significant claims recovered for Puerto Rico investors this year that made the headlines:

A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Arbitration panel ordered Morgan Stanley (MS) to pay a New Jersey widow over $95,000. Morrisa Schiffman accused the broker-dealer of making unsuitable recommendations to her, as well as of inadequate supervision and disclosure failures. Her FINRA Panel ultimately agreed.

Merrill Lynch was ordered to pay $780,000 in restitution to customers who invested in Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds and municipal bonds. FINRA found that the brokerage firm did not have the proper procedures and supervisory systems in place to ensure that all of the transactions were suitable for a number of these investors. Customers affected, in particular, are those with holdings that were heavily concentrated in Puerto Rico municipal bonds, as well as with holdings were highly leveraged via loan managed accounts or margin. FINRA said that from 1/2010 through 7/2013, 25 leveraged customers who had moderate or conservative investment objectives and modest net worths saw the securities they’d invested in sustain aggregate losses of nearly $1.2M. The customers had at least 75% of their assets in Puerto Rico securities that were ultimately liquidated to meet margin calls.

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A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel says that UBS Financial Services (UBS) must pay $18.6 million to customers Rafael Vizcarrondo and Mercedes Imbert De Jesus for their losses from investing in Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds.  The two investors, both UBS clients, accused the broker-dealer of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and other securities violations. They claim that UBS placed their money in unsuitable investments and did not properly supervise the broker who worked with them. As part of the award, Impert De Jesus and Vizcarrondo will receive $12.7 million in compensatory damages, $2.5 million of interest, $3.2 million in legal fees and $163,000 in expert witness fees.

Vizcarrondo is a prominent lawyer in Puerto Rico. His legal team said that UBS had attempted to portray him as a “sophisticated” investor, someone who should have known what he was getting involved in when he invested in the territory’s bonds.  The firm described Vizcarrondo as having been “fully informed” when he decided to concentrate his investments in UBS’s Puerto Rico closed-end funds. However, as Vizcarrondo’s attorney noted, not all professionals are “sophisticated investors.” Based on its decision, the FINRA arbitration panel obviously agreed with the claimant.

This is the largest FINRA arbitration award issued over Puerto Rico bond funds to date. There are over a thousand cases still pending. These claims were brought by investors seeking to recover the financial losses they suffered from investing in the island’s beleaguered securities. Although a number of firms, including Banco Santander (SAN), Banco Popular, Merrill Lynch and others have been named in Puerto Rico bond and closed-end bond fraud claims, UBS and affiliate UBS Financial Services Inc. of Puerto Rico (UBS-PR) have been the largest target of these claims. In fact, the TheStreet.com reports that on November 2, UBS AG, the parent company of UBS and UBS-PR, notified the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a filing that about $1.9 billion in Puerto Rico municipal bond funds and closed-end fund claims have been brought against it. The firm has already paid out $740 million to claimants.

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The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”)  has fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc (“Merrill Lynch”) $6.25 million and imposed a restitution penalty of $780,000 over Merrill Lynch’s inadequate supervision of its customers that employed leverage in brokerage accounts, as well as its failure to supervise the way that these customers were able use the proceeds from their loan managed accounts (“LMAs”). LMAs are credit lines that let customers use the securities in their brokerage accounts as collateral in order to borrow funds from a bank affiliate.  However, these LMAs are not supposed to be used to purchase additional securities.

The $780,000 will go to customers that invested in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds. By settling Merrill Lynch is not admitting or denying FINRA’s findings.

According to FINRA, Merrill Lynch did not have these adequate procedures and supervisory systems at issue in place from 1/2010 through 11/2014. FINRA found that even though Merrill Lynch’s policy and non-purpose LMA agreements barred customers from using LMA proceeds to buy different kinds of securities, there were thousands of times during the relevant period that, within two weeks of getting LMA proceeds, Merrill Lynch brokerage accounts collectively purchased hundreds of millions of dollars of securities. Merrill Lynch also set up over 121,000 LMAs, with Bank of America (“BAC”) extending over $85 Billion in aggregate credit. FINRA said that all of this was able to happen because the firm’s supervisory procedures and systems were inadequate.

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A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) panel is ordering UBS Financial Services, Inc. (“UBS”) to pay Puerto Rico residents over $700,000 in damages.  The FINRA panel ordered UBS to pay $549,000 in compensatory damages to a defunct car rental business belonging to Luis Vega, as well as over $165,000 to Teresa Rosas, who is Vega’s former wife. The firm must also pay over $100,000 in costs and hearing session fees.

Vega and Rosas filed their case against UBS accusing the brokerage firm of securities fraud, negligence, recklessness, and deceit. Vega, 87, invested almost $8 million through his Condado Motors with UBS broker Jose Chaves between ’06 and ’11. During that time, Chaves invested approximately 95% of the money in three of UBS’s Puerto Rico close-end funds, even taking out loans to cover some of the costs. The couple’s lawyer claims that Chavez did not disclose any risks involved other than what was noted in the funds’ prospectus.  Additionally, Rosas bought over 17,000 shares of the UBS Puerto Rico Fixed Income Fund III.

The couple saw their investments lose the bulk of their value when the prices for the Puerto Rico bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end funds dropped in 2013. According to their lawyer, Condado Motors lost $3.9 million in value, as well as $823,650 in net out-of-pocket losses, during 2013. The couple said that their financial problems played a part in their decision to get a divorce.

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A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel has ordered UBS Financial Services (UBS) to pay Ana Elisa Ciordia-Robles almost $1 million, including  $751,000 in compensatory damages and additional sums for legal fees and costs. Ciordia-Robles accused UBS of negligent supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, breach of contract, and violations of the Puerto Rico Uniform Securities Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b-5, and the Securities Exchange Act’s Sections 10(b). More specifically, Ciordia-Robles claimed she sustained losses from investing in UBS Puerto Rico (UBS-PR) closed-end bond funds.

When Puerto Rico muni bonds dropped in value in 2013, many investors on the island and in the mainland sustained huge investment losses. In the last few years, UBS and UBS-PR       have been the subject of thousands of customer complaints over their sale of Puerto Rico municipal bond and proprietary bond funds. Claimants are alleging that these investments were unsuitable, that high concentrations of these investments were recommended, and that UBS never apprised them of the risks involved in the closed-end bond funds that they were sold. Many of these investors have since realized that their portfolios were never equipped to handle these risks.

It was just last  year that UBS consented to pay about $34 million to US regulators to settle allegations related to its supervision of the sale of the Puerto Rico bond funds and use of leverage against those closed-end funds. UBS has already settled a number civil claims brought by investors through FINRA arbitration.  At Shepherd Smith Edwards and Kantas, LTD LLP our securities lawyers have been working hard to help quite a number of these investors  recoup these losses.

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A battle of hedge funds, and their competing interests, has erupted in Puerto Rico over the last few weeks.  This week, hedge funds Tilden Park Capital Management LP, Whitebox Advisors LLC, Merced Capital LP, and GoldenTree Asset Management LP filed a motion asking a court to impose a legal stay that would delay the lawsuit filed by general obligation bondholders that want Puerto Rico to stop directing sales-tax revenue away from the general fund. These hedge funds that submitted the motion collectively hold about $2 billion of tax revenue bonds, which are called COFINA bonds, locally.

Meantime, the general obligation bondholders that filed the lawsuit are also hedge funds. They include entities under the management of Aurelius Capital Management, FCO Advisors, Autonomy Capital, Covalent Partners, Monarch Alternative Capital, and Stone Lion Capital Partners. Earlier this month, they asked a court to stop the island from using sales-tax revenue to pay back COFINA debt. Those funds believe that the sales tax revenue should pay back the general obligation bonds first because Puerto Rico’s constitution states that general obligation should be repaid before other debt. However, the hedge funds holding the COFINAs that are requesting the legal stay are arguing that COFINA’s share of the sales-and-use-tax should not be “subject to clawback” in the event of a payment shortfall of the general obligation bonds. 

This fight is playing out at the same time the U.S. Government is trying to help the U.S. Commonwealth with its financial crisis.  PROMESA, which stands for the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act, is the new law that includes the legal stay that the CONFINA holders want imposed. The stay postpones creditor lawsuits against the island until February 15, 2017 in order to give Puerto Rico time to work out how to repay the $70 billion of debt it owes.   Although Puerto Rico is way overdue on $1.8 billion of principal plus interest payments, this includes what the island owes on general obligation bonds, the Commonwealth paying back COFINAs.
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A number of hedge funds with Puerto Rico general obligation bonds want a court to stop the U.S. territory from using its sales-tax revenue to pay back other debt. Those hedge funds say that such an action is a violation of the Commonwealth’s constitution.

To date, the Commonwealth owes nearly $13 billion of general obligation bonds. Under its constitution, Puerto Rico is required to pay back its general obligation bonds before paying off other expenses. According to the plaintiffs, part of the territory’s’ sales tax revenue is supposed to go toward that repayment.

The plaintiffs sued Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla to stop the territory from moving money away from bondholders, which they say violates the new federal law concerning Puerto Rico, called PROMESA. The hedge funds submitted their amended complaint last week, in which they added the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp., commonly called COFINA, as a defendant. The plaintiffs include entities under the management of Aurelius Capital Management, Covalent Partners, Autonomy Capital, Monarch Alternative Capital, FCO Advisors, and Stone Lion Capital Partners. 

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