Wednesday, May 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained that he meant to lose more than a billion dollars in the 80s and 90s.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on internal IRS documents corresponding to Trump's personal tax returns between 1985 and 1994. They showed that Trump had presided over a titanic, decade-long series of business failures that saw him reporting losses of over a billion dollars during that period. The NYT concluded that for most of those years, Trump—not even remotely close to the country's richest man—was the single biggest money-losing taxpayer in the entire country.

Today, Trump tried to explain away this embarrassing news by saying that he meant to do that.

Real estate developers in the 1980’s & 1990’s, more than 30 years ago, were entitled to massive write offs and depreciation which would, if one was actively building, show losses and tax losses in almost all cases. Much was non monetary. Sometimes considered “tax shelter,” ...... would get it by building, or even buying. You always wanted to show losses for tax purposes....almost all real estate developers did - and often re-negotiate with banks, it was sport. Additionally, the very old information put out is a highly inaccurate Fake News hit job!

There's a tiny grain of truth to this: in some cases, losses based on depreciation can be valuable for tax planning purposes. The problem for Trump is that only a small fraction of Trump's losses can be accounted for this way, as the NYT article points out:

Besides, it's not as though Trump's disastrous balance sheet during this period is hard to explain. These years saw the implosion of the laughably short-lived airline Trump Shuttle, the Trump Taj Mahal casino, the Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, the Trump Plaza Casino, and the Trump Plaza Hotel. And Trump's claim that this was a "sport" in real estate circles is contradicted by his own father's companies' performance during the same period. Fred Trump, who used different (and illegal) means to transfer much of his wealth tax-free to Donald Trump, showed a healthy profit on his real estate holdings during the same time.

Why does this matter?

  • It's not inherently wrong to be an incompetent businessman, but it is wrong to lie about it.
  • Failure doesn't mean much if you don't learn from it.