Roundtable Discussion on the Future of Puerto Rico’s Economy

Roundtable Discussion on the Future of Puerto Rico's Economy

Published on July 18, 2017

Sergio portrait
Policy Director

On July 18, 2017 CNE’s Policy Director Sergio Marxuach participated in a bipartisan roundtable discussion in the US Congress on the future of Puerto Rico’s economy at the invitation of Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Small Business. Below is a summary of CNE’s testimony:

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Roundtable to Discuss the Future of Puerto Rico’s Economy. My remarks will cover three topics. First, I will briefly discuss the impact of the enactment of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (“PROMESA”). Second, I will stress the need for policy initiatives at the Federal level to help Puerto Rico end its current downward economic spiral and jumpstart economic growth in the short-term. Finally, I will outline the work of the Growth Commission convened by the Center for the New Economy to develop a long-term economic growth strategy for Puerto Rico.


The enactment of PROMESA in June 2016 opened a new chapter in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. After decades of benign neglect, Congress recognized in 2016 that it has a moral obligation under the U.S. Constitution to foster the welfare of the U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico. This means that it is in Congress’s own interest to see through that Puerto Rico is successful in addressing its current fiscal and economic crisis.

Unfortunately, some of the policy tools set forth in PROMESA are not working as expected and may hinder the island’s ability to escape its current economic death spiral.

First, the imposition of a Fiscal Oversight Board over the duly elected government of Puerto Rico—with broad powers over the island’s fiscal and economic policies, authority to command the implementation of its recommendations, and the capacity to prevent the enforcement or execution of otherwise valid contracts, executive orders, laws or regulations—has seriously undermined the island’s political institutions, already extremely compromised by clientelism, partisan politics and corruption.

In addition, the Fiscal Oversight Board has added a new layer of opacity to fiscal policymaking in Puerto Rico. The discussions among Board members have been carried out mostly behind closed doors, while interactions between the Board and the Government of Puerto Rico tend to be summarized ex post, usually through succinct letters written in rather cryptic language. It is quite ironic that the Fiscal Oversight Board, which, among other things, was given the task of increasing the transparency of Puerto Rico’s finances, has actually contributed to worsening that problem.

Second, the benefits of PROMESA’s complicated territorial debt restructuring process, which combines principles drawn from both the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and from the realm of sovereign debt restructuring, remain fairly uncertain and contingent on the successful implementation of a completely new and untested legal framework for territorial bankruptcy. The risk if this experimental framework fails to adequately address Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring needs is magnified by the fragile state of the Puerto Rican economy, which has already undergone a protracted decade-long contraction.

2. Jumpstarting the Economy – The Federal Component

Moving on to growth, Puerto Rico needs to devise and execute a complex, two-prong strategy to restore economic growth. First, we have to jumpstart economic growth in the short-term. Second, the island needs to formulate an economic development plan to sustain that growth over the long-term, something it has failed to do for quite some time.
This already difficult task is further complicated by the austerity policies the Fiscal Oversight Board has required Puerto Rico to implement. The certified fiscal plan orders the island’s government to implement large expenditure cuts, significant tax increases, and deep structural reforms without access to any short-term financing.
The implication of the Fiscal Oversight Board’s policy posture is that—unless Congress is otherwise willing to address a full-scale social crisis in Puerto Rico—Federal assistance will be necessary to jumpstart economic growth in the short-term. Congress needs to implement a comprehensive economic program, remove some of the disadvantages imposed on Puerto Rico under the current political arrangement, and eliminate some long-standing inequitable and discriminatory policies. The current situation simply does not allow for piecemeal action by Washington, a wide-ranging plan is needed.

A short-term economic program for Puerto Rico at the Federal level should include for example, providing additional funding for healthcare, extending the EITC and the CTC to Puerto Rico, preserving social safety net programs, and increasing funding for education, infrastructure, and research.

3. The CNE Growth Commission – The Local Component

In addition to initiatives at the Federal level, Puerto Rico needs to craft a local long-term economic development strategy and strengthen its execution capabilities.
Achieving long-term, sustainable economic growth and development is a complex endeavor that requires a new set of strategies and the rebuilding of institutions; thus, there are no quick fixes or silver bullets. In other words, economic growth is not simply a function of exiguous regulation, low wages, or preferential tax treatment. Rather, the process of growth is quite complicated, involving the interplay of many variables and factors that must be present if a country is to succeed.
As a first step in charting the road towards sustainable economic development, the Center for a New Economy has undertaken the task of empaneling the CNE Growth Commission for Puerto Rico.

The Commission will work towards (1) identifying and suggesting ways to relax local and external constraints that inhibit the territory from speeding up the process of economic structural change towards higher productivity activities; and (2) generating opportunities to diversify the portfolio of high productivity activities in the economy. Specifically, the Commission will focus on the following areas with the potential for high impact:

  • Area 1: Identifying Sectorial Opportunities
    Using cutting-edge product space analysis the Commission will identify new products and services that could augment aggregate value through the use of existing productive capabilities embedded in the island’s current production structure. This methodology operationalizes the idea that it is generally easier for countries to move from products and services that they already produce to others higher in the value chain that are similar in terms of capital requirements, knowledge, and skills. Because not all feasible new products contribute in the same way to value added and growth, a key challenge along the diversification process is the identification of those goods and services that are feasible and have a higher potential to sustain economic development.
  • Area 2: Horizontal Reforms to Enhance Competitiveness
    At the same time, the Commission will identify opportunities for effective policy reform in areas with the potential to enhance the competitiveness of local and multinational producers across multiple sectors, such as: tax and competition policy, human capital and workforce development, energy production, and communications, information, and technology infrastructure, among others.
  • Area 3: Macro-Fiscal Policy
    Finally, a Working Group of the Commission will develop feasible proposals for tax policy reform with the aim of (i) enhancing the territory’s competitiveness and (ii) reducing tax distortions that may inhibit productivity growth in the private sector. This Group will work on evaluating the potential for a disciplined fiscal reform to enhance the territory’s competitiveness, given its inclusion in the US monetary union.


In sum, Puerto Rico has been under severe economic, fiscal, and financial stress during the past decade. Furthermore, the Fiscal Oversight Board has ordered Puerto Rico to put on the equivalent of an IMF policy straitjacket without providing access to the few benefits that usually accompany IMF conditionality programs. In our view, this policy posture simply does not make sense and implementing these policies will, in a perverse way, decrease Puerto Rico’s short and medium-term capacity to honor its obligations by intensifying an already prolonged economic contraction.

Second, to jumpstart economic growth in the short-term Congress needs to implement a comprehensive economic policy program, remove some of the disadvantages imposed on Puerto Rico under the current political arrangement, and eliminate some long-standing inequitable and discriminatory policies.
Third, in addition to initiatives at the Federal level, Puerto Rico needs to craft a long-term local economic development strategy. This strategy should consist of sectorial, horizontal and institutional policies to promote Puerto Rico’s capability to progressively move into higher value-added activities.