Trump’s attacks raise eyebrows on Wall Street

Gina Chon
Trump wants you to believe he's no fan of hedge funds

As Donald Trump has barnstormed his way across America in recent months stirring up the Republican heartland with populist invective, it is not just immigrants the billionaire property tycoon has had in his sights.

The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination has also waged a vituperative campaign against Wall Street, accusing hedge funds of "getting away with murder" — somewhat to the entertainment of the bankers who helped finance the rise of his business empire.

"I have been highly amused about Trump's comments about us given he's almost one of us, at least in a business sense," said one Wall Street banker whose group has provided Mr Trump's properties with millions of dollars in financing. "He is totally comfortable around Wall Street and bankers."

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, DC, December 3, 2015.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Mr Trump characterises himself as not beholden to special interests, ridiculing hedge funds as "guys that shift paper around and . . . get lucky" and highlighting a contrast with his own record of building large construction projects.

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Big banks and hedge funds, however, have played a pivotal role in the growth of his real estate empire, providing his companies with loans, acquiring stakes in Trump properties and restructuring debt terms in his times of trouble — as he has acknowledged happily in the past.

"Morgan Stanley is one of the finest investment banking names on Wall Street," Mr Trump said in a 2004 press release, when the bank helped during the 2004 bankruptcy of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, a holding company for several properties.

"We are excited about the opportunity to work with [former Morgan Stanley managing director] Mitch Petrick and his team, given their proven track record."

Morgan Stanley became the joint lead arranger for $500m in financing as part of the reorganisation of the company, while UBS advised Trump Hotels and also helped arrange financing.

Morgan Stanley and other financial groups declined to comment about Mr Trump.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman said the candidate's criticism of Wall Street has been focused on the issues of large political donations and the carried interest loophole, which reduces taxes paid by hedge fund and private equity managers.

"Mr Trump is self-funding his campaign and is not beholden to these big money donors of Wall Street or any other group," the spokeswoman said, arguing that such donations often influence and control " all-talk, no-action politicians".

The spokeswoman added: "The only special interest Mr Trump is beholden to is the American people."

To date, this "outsider" rhetoric has boosted the Trump campaign. He commands 36.5 per cent support in the race for the Republican nomination in a rolling average of polls by RealClear Politics, and enjoys a clear lead in the important New Hampshire primary.

A banker who has worked on Mr Trump's real estate deals said he built good relationships with Wall Street, capitalising on financial professionals' desire for his business. He was also skilled at renegotiating debt deals, taking advantage of banks and hedge funds that wanted to get at least some money back from their investments.

Those skills helped Mr Trump at the time of his first corporate bankruptcy in 1991, which involved the debt-laden Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. Although Mr Trump had personally guaranteed at least $900m in Taj Mahal debt, he avoided having to declare personal bankruptcy by convincing the banks, led by Chase Manhattan Bank, to restructure the liabilities.

A year later, Mr Trump's Plaza Hotel in New York filed for bankruptcy. Citigroup stepped in, leading a handful of lenders to buy a 49 per cent stake in the property.

The Plaza was later sold to a group of overseas investors that included Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, who recently became embroiled in a Twitter fight with Mr Trump over the Republican hopeful's plan to ban Muslims from entering the US.

Mr Trump has also sparred with Wall Street. In 2008, he sued Deutsche Bank and other lenders over a $640m construction loan for Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago.

Mr Trump argued the financial crisis prevented him from repaying the loan to Deutsche and Fortress Investment, a hedge fund, in the allotted time.

Deutsche countersued to obtain repayment. The two sides settled in 2010, with Deutsche extending the terms of the loan for five years.

Deutsche's private bank is providing a $170m loan for one of Mr Trump's latest projects, his new hotel in Washington DC. Construction on the Trump International Hotel is due to be completed next year.

Mr Trump's relations with high finance were more amicable in 2009, on the occasion of his last corporate bankruptcy. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, having previously emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2005, fell into trouble again under the new name of Trump Entertainment Resorts.

Mr Trump teamed up with Avenue Capital, the hedge fund founded by Marc Lasry, to beat back a takeover attempt by Beal Bank and Carl Icahn the activist investor. The plan he and his hedge fund allies put forward was endorsed by a bankruptcy judge.

But Mr Icahn has held no grudge. He is backing Mr Trump for president — and even briefly accepted his offer to be Secretary of Treasury.

"Donald probably has had more extensive dealings with Wall Street than any of the others," said Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor who advised bondholders in Mr Trump's first bankruptcy. "But so far there have not been any novel points of view from him on the topic, except that at one point he indicated he might appoint Carl Icahn as Secretary of the Treasury."

"Carl is certainly one of the most successful hedge fund operators, so I would guess that Donald is not condemning the whole breed."