Major Puerto Rico investor warns it stands ready to defend bonds

A young man offers water for sale outside a closed pizzeria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Alvin Baez-Hernandez

By Megan Davies and Tim McLaughlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. fund manager OppenheimerFunds, the largest holder of Puerto Rico debt among U.S. municipal bond funds, warned the island it stands ready to defend the terms of bonds it holds, a day after the governor said he wanted to restructure debt and postpone bond payments.

Puerto Rico's Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla could be heading toward a fight with creditors unwilling to take reduced payouts as he tries to restructure the island's $73 billion debt to relieve its fiscal problems.

OppenheimerFunds, with about $4.5 billion exposure to Puerto Rico according to Morningstar, said it believed the island could repay bondholders while providing essential services to citizens and growing the economy. It said it stood ready "to defend the previously agreed to terms in each and every bond indenture."

"We are disheartened that Governor Padilla, in a public forum, has called for negotiations with other creditors, representing and including the millions of individual Americans that hold Puerto Rico municipal bonds," a spokesman for Oppenheimer said in a statement.

Garcia Padilla said on Monday his goal was to come up with a negotiated moratorium with bondholders to postpone debt payments for a number of years.

Puerto Rico's bonds fell sharply for a second session on Tuesday, with general obligation 8 percent bonds maturing in 2035 as low as $64.50 versus a low of $68.75 on Monday, however they had a late rally to $68. Almost 10 percent of municipal bonds that traded Monday were Puerto Rico-related, according to Janney Capital Markets.

Garcia Padilla's remarks prompted credit agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch to further cut ratings on the island's bonds.

The commonwealth still has yet to default. On Tuesday it made its final payment on a $900 million short-term loan, according to a source close to the banks. It will make a coupon payment of $645.2 million on its general obligation debt, due Wednesday, a person familiar with the matter said.

The island's utility PREPA, with around $9 billion of debt, and creditors are also close to a deal to avoid a potential default on $400 million payment due Wednesday, two source familiar with the talks said.

Puerto Rico's deepening financial crisis could speed up an exodus of money from U.S. municipal bond funds.

U.S. open-ended municipal bond funds have $11 billion of Puerto Rico bonds and nearly 53 percent of such funds have exposure to the commonwealth, according to Morningstar.

(Reporting by Megan Davies and Tim McLaughlin; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Christian Plumb)