Moneybox

Donald Trump Lost a Billion Dollars—Just Not His Own

He lost other people’s money, then bogusly claimed the tax benefits of those losses for himself.

Donald Trump on the White House lawn
President Donald Trump outside the White House on Wednesday.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

So, the president lost a billion dollars.

That’s the takeaway from another massive New York Times story about Donald Trump’s tax returns, this one showing escalating losses on the New York entrepreneur’s 1040 forms throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. By 1994, the president had lost $1.17 billion in just 10 years—“more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.”

For most of us, the returns will add depth to the Times’ 2016 revelation  that Trump’s federal adjusted gross income in 1995 was negative $916 million, an amount that likely spared him any income tax payments for 15 years to come.

For the president’s cultish following, they are “fake news” or “old news” or evidence of Trump’s superior brainpower. “I don’t think there is a single (even in the business community) journalist capable of understanding Trump’s tax returns and telling anybody what they mean,” Rush Limbaugh said of the latest Times story.

Actually, what they mean is pretty clear: The president was a terrible businessman who may have broken the law on his tax returns. He did not actually lose a billion dollars. He just said he did.

First, let’s go back a step: Why was Trump counting such big business losses on his personal tax income, anyway? Because his businesses were partnerships, and so his personal income tax return reflected their gains and losses. Specifically, “net operating loss” provisions allow owners of these pass-through businesses, like Trump, to transfer all kinds of business losses (including asset depreciation, write-downs, and operating losses) onto their personal tax returns.

The president, for his part, said on Wednesday that real estate depreciation explains the losses—his buildings were getting older and less valuable every year. For that to pass the sniff test, he would have had to own tens of billions in property. It’s inconceivable. We do know, however, that Trump’s casinos were losing boatloads of money at the time and that a number of his endeavors went bankrupt—a more believable explanation for his decade of accumulating losses.

Did Trump even have a billion dollars in the mid-1980s to lose? It’s extremely unlikely—especially if he was still worth $2 billion by the end of this tumultuous period, as he has claimed, which is also unlikely. Forbes had his net worth at $600 million in 1985. Subtract a billion, and well …

But that question isn’t a serious one. We know that Trump took on billions in debt at the time, and it was that money—from banks, from bondholders who bought into his casino schemes, and from contractors—he was losing. Here’s the Times:

Mr. Trump was able to lose all that money without facing the usual consequences — such as a steep drop in his standard of living — in part because most of it belonged to others, to the banks and bond investors who had supplied the cash to fuel his acquisitions.

Does this make Trump a bad businessman? In some ways, no: Reporting a lot of losses is good for tax purposes. In other ways, yes: His companies failed and he lost a ton of other people’s money, which included both fat cats and banks (who cares) and small contractors and dumb bond buyers who were never paid or repaid (not great).

Here’s the important part: We know Trump got hundreds of millions of debt forgiven in the 1990s as his projects went belly up. To the IRS, canceled debt is the same as income. If you don’t have to pay back a dollar you said you did, you’ve effectively made a dollar. Trump appears to have claimed other people’s losses as his losses—but never accounted for the money he didn’t have to pay back. Reported correctly, that income would have shrunk that billion-dollar loss.

Why didn’t Trump report on his 1040s that he had, effectively, made hundreds of millions by not having to pay back all that debt? It appears the Times solved this one in 2016 as well, with a letter from Donald Trump’s lawyers: He used something called a “stock-for-debt swap” to make it look like the debts had been paid, not forgiven.

The logic here is as convoluted as you’d expect for a 30-year-old tax hack—just read the piece—but the point is that Trump didn’t really lose a billion dollars. He lost a lot of other people’s money, then claimed that loss as his own to avoid paying taxes.