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Puerto Rico bonds plunge again as investors face lower recovery than expected

  • Puerto Rico's benchmark general obligation bond fell another 2.36 percent on Tuesday.
  • The devastation from the storm has raised questions about the island's ability to pay on its bonds.
  • Puerto Rico filed for a form of bankruptcy in May with $74 billion in bond indebtedness.

Prices for already beleaguered Puerto Rican debt fell to record lows on Tuesday as investors realized that the devastation from Hurricane Maria made it likely they would receive even less principal than previously thought.

Puerto Rico's 8 percent general obligation bond due in 2035, a benchmark for the island's debt, plunged an additional 1.25 cents, or 2.36 percent, to 51.75 cents on the dollar, and it was unclear if that was the bottom.

"I think that it's a realization on the part of a lot of people that the damage is a lot worse than anticipated," said one muni trading executive. He said in the minds of some investors, "the debt has already been written off."

Moody's Investors Service, in a research note published Monday, said widespread damage has reduced the economic capacity of the island to pay, changing whatever assumptions were previously made in the bankruptcy proceeding. The island, with $74 billion of bond indebtedness, filed for a form of bankruptcy in May.

"In the judicial debt restructuring process, a weaker economic outlook could support arguments in favor of lower bondholder recoveries," Moody's said. "Limitations on the government's capacity to operate electricity systems – as well as ports, water and sewer service and transportation infrastructure – will hurt rate, fee and tax collections while also impeding commerce."

On Tuesday, Dow Jones said the federal board overseeing the bankruptcy is likely to revisit the the financial plan this week. The board on Friday allowed the island's government to shift up to $1 billion of budget funds to emergency measures.

"I think we believed for a while there were going to be some write downs on Puerto Rico because of the noise they've been making about how much money they have to pay bond holders back and because the PROMESA restructuring that allows them to do that," said Peter Bianchini, the executive director at Preston Hollow Capital.

PROMESA is an acronym for the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, which established an oversight board to address the island's debt crisis.

At least one social activist group was calling for out right debt relief throughout the Caribbean.

"No island should be making debt payments until they can recover, whether we are talking about US territories like Puerto Rico or ‎countries like Dominica," noted Eric LeCompte, the executive director of the religious development group Jubilee USA.

It's unclear if reducing recovery amounts, which in essence is debt relief, would be handled in any other way than the current bankruptcy proceedings.

Analysts suggested that Congress would have to be involved, and there is no indication that this is currently being considered.

But Luis Fortuno, the former Governor of Puerto Rico from 2009 to 2013, said the amount would have to be adjusted somehow. "Both the government and the oversight board had certain assumptions that are out the window now," he told Politico.

Patti Domm contributed to this report.

WATCH: First-hand account of horrific damage in Puerto Rico