From the Tower to the White House

The enigma of the presidential candidate’s business affairs

WHEN Donald Trump announced that he was running for the White House, there was only one venue for his speech: Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. The skyscraper has been central to Mr Trump’s business life. Built between 1979 and 1984, it was a triumph for a young property mogul whose father rented out mere apartments in Brooklyn. Nearby is the Plaza Hotel, which a middle-aged Mr Trump sold in 1995 after his casino operation folded. Today half his wealth is still tied up in buildings within a four-mile radius of this spot. The Tower’s bar exemplifies Mr Trump’s late-life pivot to the business of celebrity, with cocktails named after his TV show The Apprentice, which was filmed there. A gift shop stocks Trump aftershave that “captures the spirit of the driven man”.

Mr Trump’s drive and ownership of Trump Tower are among the few clear and consistent features of his 40-year business life. Much else is opaque, volatile and contested. Mr Trump sees himself as a largely self-made man whose global career qualifies him to be president: “Nobody in the history of the presidency has been nearly as successful as I have,” he says. Rivals in the Manhattan property game think he has taken his eye off the ball. His enemies say he inherited a fortune and built upon it an empire of defaults and exaggeration. To others Mr Trump is a mere celebrity playing a dangerous political game: a cross between Mussolini and the Kardashian clan.

Which version is right? A review of Mr Trump’s career, his filings with regulators and third-party estimates of his wealth, suggests four conclusions. First, his fortune is in the billions of dollars. Second, his attempt to shift away from debt-heavy property and to create a global brand has been a limited success. About 93% of his wealth sits in America and 80% is in real estate (including golf courses). Third, Mr Trump’s performance has been mediocre compared with the stockmarket and property in New York. Lastly, his clannish management style suggests he might be out of his depth if he ran a larger organisation.

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“I’ve been through cycles, I’ve been through a lot,” admits Mr Trump. His career can be split into three stages. The era of debt-fuelled expansion was in 1975-90. Mr Trump’s big break was the renovation of a site at Grand Central Station, which is now occupied by the Hyatt Hotel. He raised cash, found a tenant, secured permits and completed a complex building job, according to his biographer, Michael D’Antonio. Buoyed by success he went on a long spree, buying buildings in a depressed Manhattan (including the site of Trump Tower), expanding into casinos in Atlantic City and picking up a small airline. His investments over this period were worth perhaps $5 billion in today’s money, with four-fifths of that debt-financed.

The era of humiliation came in the 1990s, as the casino business faltered and two of his gambling entities defaulted (two other related casino enterprises defaulted in 2004 and 2009). This destabilised the whole of Mr Trump’s operation, which may have had as much as $6 billion of debt in today’s prices. Through asset sales, defaults and forbearance from his creditors, Mr Trump clung on and avoided personal bankruptcy. As property prices in Manhattan rose he recovered his poise, and by the early 2000s he was doing small deals again, for example buying the Hotel Delmonico on New York’s Upper East Side.

The final stage, of celebrity, came with his starring role in the The Apprentice in2004. The success of the TV show, which had 28m viewers at its peak and ran until 2015, led Mr Trump to create a flurry of ventures to cash in on his enhanced fame. He is now involved with 487 companies, up from 136 in 2004. They span hotel licensing in Azerbaijan and energy drinks in Israel. At face value Mr Trump has turned his name into a global brand that prints cash.

The numbers of the beast
Information about Mr Trump’s business is sketchy. He doesn’t run a publicly listed firm, and does not appear to have a holding company into which his assets are grouped. He releases a one-page, unaudited, estimate of his wealth. He has also made a filing on his finances with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), although this does not specify the value of assets worth over $50m and may not include all kinds of income. Estimates of his wealth have been made by Forbes magazine and Bloomberg, a financial-data provider.

In the New York property world Mr Trump is perceived to have gone off the boil in the past decade—“He’s been distracted,” says one broker—with other developers doing bolder projects, such as the Fisher and Durst families, and Gary Barnett. But there is not too much disagreement about the value of Mr Trump’s existing buildings and golf-resorts. The contentious bit is his branding operation. According to his FEC filings, this generated about $68m of income in 2014. Valued on a multiple of ten to reflect the fact contracts are finite, this is worth $680m. Based on a composite of figures from the FEC, his estimates, real-estate brokers and Forbes, Mr Trump is worth $4.3 billion.20160220_USC940

Whether he has transcended the business of property to become a global brand isdebatable. His appeal is strong in golf, where Trump-flagged resorts are well regarded. Mr Trump’s name carries less cachet in hotels or consumer goods, and does not travel well beyond the country he says he wants to make great again.

Of his wealth, only an estimated 7% is outside America and 66% is made in New York. Only about 22% of his worth is derived from assets that he actively created after 2004, when he became a reality TV star. Some 64% is from conventional property and a further 17% from resorts and golf clubs. His biggest recent deal has been in real estate: buying the Doral hotel in 2012 out of bankruptcy. Only 11 of the licensing and branding companies created since 2004 make more than $1m of income. Mr Trump says there are 38 more deals in the pipeline but it is hard to know their worth.

Mr Trump’s performance is tricky to gauge, too, because early estimates of his wealth may have been overstated. We take three starting points and use Forbes’s data (see chart 2). The best long-term starting point is 1985, when Mr Trump first appeared in the rankings without his father. The most generous starting point is 1996, when Mr Trump had just clawed his way back from the abyss. The final starting point is a decade ago.

20160220_usp002Judged from the low point in 1996, he has outperformed the S&P 500 index of big firms and the New York property market. Judged by his long-term record, he has done poorly. And over the past decade Mr Trump has lagged both benchmarks. His ranking among American billionaires has fallen from a peak of 26 to 121—by the standards of the country’s oligarchy, he is small beer. His property empire is a seventh the size of America’s biggest real-estate firm.

Mr Trump was sensible enough to get out of casinos in Atlantic City. But he missed out on the industry boom in Macau that propelled erstwhile rivals such as Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands into a different league. Mr Adelson is worth $26 billion, according to Forbes. When considering Mr Trump’s performance, one should also spare a thought for outside investors in his projects. Many have made money. But roughly $5 billion of equity and debt (at current prices) from outsiders sat in Trump vehicles that went bust.

What of Mr Trump’s management style? His attributes are charisma, spontaneity, frequent communication and quick decision-making. He is a fine negotiator, grinding down the other side with charm and relentless tweaks of the fine print. “He is incredibly charming and deeply frustrating,” says someone who has acted for him. A former top executive at the Trump organisation says, “People think he is running everything from 30,000 feet, but it is the opposite. He knows if the carpets were cleaned and every clause in the contract.”

The flip side of Mr Trump’s personality is volatility, with explosive outbursts and unpredictable behaviour. “He’s not stable. He has a nuclear temper,” says the same source, who recalls spittle flying and desks being swept empty. Throughout his life Mr Trump has pursued energy-sapping feuds.

Just as his campaign machine is improvised, he appears to have a puny apparatus to support his business. The Trump organisation has a dozen key executives, including Mr Trump’s three eldest children, Donald, Ivanka and Eric. Based on the FEC documents, the structure of the Trump organisation is crude, with most of the legal vehicles owned directly by Mr Trump, rather than being grouped together…..read more @ Economist

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