How the US Is Helping to Sink Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico bonds: Beware these key dangers
Puerto Rico bonds: Beware these key dangers   

As creditors in Europe look with trepidation at the increasing probability that Greece will default on its debts, investors in the United States are watching a similar situation play out in Puerto Rico, where decades of borrowing and a stagnating economy have, according to the commonwealth's governor, made default on general obligation bonds all but inevitable.

The government announced over the weekend that banks would be closed on Monday and capital controls would be put in place to prevent investors from taking money out of the island's economy.

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In an alarming report that leaked over the weekend, a team of economists headed by Anne O. Krueger, former chief economist for the World Bank and more recently first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, issued dire warnings.

Puerto Rico capitol building
William Randall | Getty Images

"Puerto Rico faces hard times," the authors found. "Structural problems, economic shocks and weak public finances have yielded a decade of stagnation, outmigration and debt. Financial markets once looked past these realities but have since cut off the commonwealth from normal market access. A crisis looms."

The Krueger report found that the government's fiscal deficit is "much larger than assumed" and said the only way forward involves massive restructuring of both the government's debts and those of major public enterprises.

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Any move to restructure the commonwealth's obligation will likely meet stiff resistance from the bond markets. Puerto Rico's debt is widely held by U.S. hedge funds, mutual funds and other investment vehicles. It has been particularly popular because a special provision of U.S. law for years made it exempt from federal, state and local taxes.

That allowed Puerto Rico to fund large amounts of deficit spending for well over a decade, resulting in a debt load that has placed an enormous fiscal burden on an economy that has begun shrinking. As recently as 2013, Puerto Rico's Government Development Bank could borrow at between 5 and 6 percent interest. Today, that rate has rocketed to more than 15 percent, essentially shutting the island out of the bond markets.

The combination has left Puerto Rico unable to pay its debts, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla admitted in an interview with The New York Times. "The debt is not payable," he said. "There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math."

The Krueger report notes that Puerto Rico's close association with the United States is both a benefit and a curse when it comes to the island's economy.

Puerto Rico is a bigger risk than Greece: Pro
Puerto Rico is a bigger risk than Greece: Pro   

For example, employers are subject to federal minimum wage laws, despite the fact that the federal minimum of $7.50 per hour is much higher relative to per capita income on the island than it is on the mainland. A mainland U.S. worker earning the minimum wage is making about 28 percent of per capita income in the country as a whole. A worker earning the same in Puerto Rico earns 77 percent of the island's per capita income. This means that even entry-level workers are much more expensive to hire in Puerto Rico.

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Additionally, the report found, social safety net benefits are, given the cost of living on the island and the relative earnings of minimum wage, more generous than on the mainland.

"Workers are disinclined to take up jobs because the welfare system provides generous benefits that often exceed what minimum wage employment yields; one estimate shows that a household of three eligible for food stamps, AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], Medicaid and utilities subsidies could receive $1,743 per month — as compared with a minimum wage earner's take-home earnings of $1,159."

One result is that only 40 percent of the adult population is gainfully employed, versus more than 60 percent in the mainland.

The report paints a picture of an island trapped in a vicious cycle. Poor economic growth, the result of past fiscal mismanagement, has led to an increasing need for deficit spending, which further depresses growth, perpetuating what Garcia Padilla has called a "death spiral."

With a population greater than that of 22 states, Puerto Rico has economic significance for the U.S., and its extensive use of the bond markets in the past decade means that a widespread default could be a major shock to the markets. (The island's per capita debt load would also, as the Krueger report points out, involve an unprecedented request for relief from creditors.)

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The report posits a "voluntary exchange of old bonds for new ones with a later/lower debt service profile." That essentially means bondholders would have to take a haircut.

"Negotiations with creditors will doubtlessly be challenging," the report said. "There is no U.S. precedent for anything of this scale and scope, and there is the added complication of extensive pledging of specific revenue streams to specific debts. But difficult or not, the projections are clear that the issue can no longer be avoided."