Donald John Trump was one of 366 student members of the class of 1968 who was  awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).

Other than his bachelor’s degree and some experience working in the family real estate business, there is no evidence that Mr. Trump has pursued additional education, credentials or capabilities in the field of economics.

Trump’s paucity of bona fides in the world of economic theory and practice has not deterred him from taking an active role in testing new economic concepts.

From an economic perspective, the presidency of Donald Trump will likely be remembered primarily for his America First posture, which has influenced immigration, tariff and tax policies.

Immigration:  Trump administration policy decisions focused on immigration have dramatically hurt domestic agriculture, food processing, hospitality, tourism and other low-wage, entry-level service occupations.

Tariffs:  Tariffs imposed on imported goods and materials are nothing more than a tax paid by the end user, in many cases, the American consumer.

Tariffs can be effectively used as a component of a strategic long-term plan to reposition the competitive position of American manufacturers on the world stage.

There is no known evidence that tariffs have ever brought any long-term value-added when arbitrarily and capriciously applied.

Trump administration subjective tariffs on imported steel and aluminum (justified as a means to “protect our country and our workers”) have proven to be a financial burden on several high-wage value-added U.S. industries, including: Automotive; Aerospace; Construction; and Manufacturing.

Tax Cuts:  The signing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017 was lauded as landmark legislation which would: (a) lower taxes on businesses and individuals; (b) stimulate higher wages and more jobs; and (c) result in a larger and more dynamic economy as a result of dramatically increased domestic business investment in plant and equipment.

Almost two years after the passage of TCJA, it seems clear that some near-term economic stimulation was achieved, but the long-term impact on gross domestic product (GDP) will be modest, if at all. The impact will be smaller on gross national product (GNP) than on GDP because the law generated net capital inflows from abroad that must be repaid in the future.

The expectation touted by elected officials in their frenzy to pass the TCJA envisioned some $4 Trillion being repatriated, generating new and potent investment and jobs in the U.S.

Most recent estimates reflect $3 Trillion (or more) in profits that U.S. companies have left parked overseas, with about $465 Billion in “repatriated” cash returning to the U.S. to enjoy a tax rate of 15.5% (vs. the 35% prior tax rate) on profits returned to the U.S. from overseas.

A good outcome?  Sure, in the short term.  Capital investments? Plant and equipment? Not so much.  There is virtually no evidence that any of the repatriated cash was invested in job creation.  It was invested in executive bonuses; stock buy-backs; debt repayments; and some dividend enhancements.

Please stay tuned, there is more to come…..

Advertisements

Let’s be clear: the terms ‘tax evasion’ and ‘tax avoidance’ are often used interchangeably. However, only those activities which occur in a tax avoidance scheme are considered lawful.

Plenty of reliable media sources have carefully examined and reported on the awful legacy of Donald Trump’s multiple bankruptcies on a myriad of small businesses: architects, carpet suppliers, lighting and electrical distributors, even custom cabinet-makers.

A recent expose published by The New York Times focused on Trump’s taxes and revealed a previously unexposed nuance:  many of his unpaid bills were essentially ‘double counted’ through the magic of accrual accounting.  Thus, Trump and his Organization underpaid many vendors, while concurrently creating a paper loss for Trump which translated into a ‘tax loss carryforward’ good to shield future profits from future taxation.

If people had been able to look at this bad behavior as a base line, and project it forward, they might have been able to see how much damage The Donald has already done to families and communities in the U.S.

Following his inauguration in January 2017, Trump’s operating principles haven’t changed at all.

A direct result of the introduction of Trump operating principles into the Executive Office has become an oblique assault on moderate and small family-owned businesses across the U.S. — in the manufacturing sector; in retail; agriculture; mining; ranching; hospitality; media; transportation; entertainment; food; construction; business services; technology; and more.

The foundation of success epitomized in the American Dream is entrepreneurial — hard work, focus and sacrifice oriented to a long term view.

The minority of small business operators who operate like Trump — those who operate at the margins and take advantage of honest business people who operate on the platform of honesty and honor — get put out of business quickly.

Tax avoidance – using any and every loophole to avoid paying taxes – is legal, even when some of the activities involved may be considered by some to be morally repugnant.

Somehow, Trump has been able to use his unique combination of charisma and showmanship to fool a rather sizeable segment of American adults into believing his shtick.

How very sad…

Paul Ryan retired from Congress in January 2019 after 20 years of service culminating in his 3+ years of service as Speaker of the House.

Ryan was the chief cheerleader for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and he left D.C. touting it as the greatest accomplishment of his political career.

Ryan repeatedly exclaimed how this new legislation (TCJA) would unleash unprecedented U.S. economic prosperity, by providing:

  1. Tax relief for middle-income families;
  2. Simplification of the tax code for individuals;
  3. Economic growth; and
  4. Repatriation of $3+ Trillion of profits U.S. companies have parked overseas would generate more investment and jobs in the U.S.

16 months after passage of the TCJA, it should be crystal clear that:

  1. Almost none of the tax cut benefits have reached the low- and middle income Americans who were promised tax relief;
  2. The TCJA legislation is some 1,097 pages itself, and it states very clearly that it is an Amendment to (the existing) Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (not a simplification);
  3. Economic Growth? The jury is still out on this one, but there seems to be no evidence of growth above or beyond the existing growth trend line which began in mid-2009;
  4. American companies have returned some (+/- $500 Billion) of their profits held overseas as a result of the tax holiday which was part of TCJA. Much of that money was used for stock buy-backs and debt reduction.

In fact, 16 months following the passage of the TCJA, U.S. companies are still waiting for final guidance from the Treasury Department on many of the final rules relative to repatriation.

And, despite continued U.S. economic growth and record corporate profits, a record 60 Fortune 500 companies avoided paying any federal income tax in 2018.

Federal tax revenues have declined during a period of economic expansion and our government spending has increased, thus the verifiable result from Paul Ryan’s signature accomplishment – the TCJA — is an increase in our federal deficit, an extra-special gift to our children and grandchildren.

The Treasury Department announced in March 2019 that the deficit for the first four months of the 2019 budget year (which began Oct. 1, 2018) totaled $310.3 Billion, up from a deficit of $175.7 Billion in the same period the year prior.

The Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the annual federal deficit between revenues and expenses will hit $897 Billion in fiscal year 2019, up 15.1 percent from the $779 Billion deficit recorded in FY 2018.

The end result: Our total federal debt will reach $22 Trillion this year – about 105% of GDP.

Why is that important? A comprehensive study by the World Bank examined economic data from 100 developing and developed economies spanning a time period from 1980 to 2008, concluding that a public debt/GDP above 77% begins to create a drag on economic growth.

The World Bank analysis concluded that for each additional percentage point of debt above the 77% threshold costs 0.017 percentage points of annual real growth.

If the World Bank study is correct, we are currently missing about 0.5% of our economic growth potential due to misguided public policy decisions, in addition to the future burden of repaying federal debt which was incurred unnecessarily.

Paul Ryan achieved his personal goal of shepherding record tax reform through Congress resulting in the passage of TCJA.

Although his personal goal was achieved at the expense of American society, Paul Ryan clearly is a winner.  So, please join me in sending a note of thanks and congratulations to Paul Ryan.  He left us a legacy.

The Amazon Conundrum

March 5, 2019

While New Yorkers continue to debate the loss of Amazon from a site in Queens, the discussion seems to have lost sight of what Amazon contributes to the long-term well-being of our society.

Amazon is not a friend to America, has contributed very little if anything to our overall economy. The stock is currently grossly overvalued with a P/E ratio in excess of 80x.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has an estimated net worth of $165 Billion, primarily as a result of a business model which has dramatically changed the U.S. retail sector.

Most egregious? Amazon paper earnings for 2018 are $11.2 Billion, and early reports indicate that they will pay $0 in federal income taxes on these earnings.

(Amazon reported $5.6 Billion in U.S. profits in 2017 and paid $0 last year.)

Amazon creates jobs? True. Good jobs? False.

Economic scholars generally agree that a ‘living wage’ in the NY Metro area for an adult with one child is $31/hour, with 2 children $41/hour.

Amazon announced in early October 2018 that it would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its U.S. employees.

Meanwhile, much like Walmart, Amazon has created a business model which effectively eliminates competition and destroys small business.

The hot topic today is the talk of ‘Democratic Socialism’ being portrayed by some pundits as a death threat to American democracy.

The real threat to American democracy is the proliferation and exponential growth of a few family-controlled and vertically-integrated oligarchies which are capable of re-creating the Feudal System which characterized medieval Europe during the Middle Ages.

“Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are bound to repeat the outrage of history.”

National Emergency

February 13, 2019

Yes, we are facing a national emergency, and it’s not along our southern border.

Our real national emergency is our National Debt.

Let’s first agree that when the U.S. federal government runs a deficit, or spends more than it receives in tax revenue, the U.S. Treasury Department borrows money to make up the difference.

Next, let’s agree that our national debt is the amount of money the federal government has borrowed through various means, including: (1) by issuing bills, notes and bonds which are bought by investors (domestic and foreign), including the public, the Federal Reserve and foreign governments; (2) through intra-governmental debt, essentially money borrowed from trust funds used to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The great majority of economists and economic and fiscal analysts tend to agree that the significance of national debt is best measured by comparing the debt with the federal government’s ability to pay it off using the debt-to-GDP ratio, simply by dividing a nation’s debt by its gross domestic product.

Various sources have estimated that a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio is in the 40% to 60% range.  A longitudinal study conducted by World Bank economists published in 2010 estimated that in highly developed countries, 77% was a ‘tipping point’ where productivity and potential economic growth was constrained by adding additional debt without addition of incremental revenue.  (In emerging economies, they estimate that 64% is the tipping point.)  In either case, potential for default begins to increase once the tipping point has been breached, thus putting upward pressure on borrowing costs.

The first instance when U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 77% was toward the end of World War II.  In the post-war years, our national debt shrank in comparison to the booming post-war economy, and the debt-to-GDP ratio fell as low as 24 percent in 1974.

Recession and rising interest rates during the Carter administration put upward pressure on the debt-to-GDP ratio, and once the tax cuts enacted during Reagan’s first term combined with increased spending on both defense and social programs, the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 50 % in July 1989.

Economic growth in the ‘90s, combined with tax increases under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped keep the debt load in line, and by the end of December 2000, our national debt was about 55% of GDP.

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, U.S. military spending spiked, yet tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 during the George W. Bush administration combined with a mild recession in 2001 and the Great Recession beginning in 2007 caused significant decreases in tax revenues. By the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the debt-to- GDP-ratio reached 75%.

Deficit spending is one of the key tools available to stimulate economic recovery, and by the time of Obama’s 2nd inauguration in January 2013, the U.S. debt had grown to $16 Trillion – a debt-to-GDP ratio of 101%. By that time, it was clear that the economic stimulus of deficit spending had worked, evidenced by an expanding U.S. economy; signs of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; resurgence of the U.S. stock market; continued job growth; and other positive economic indicators.

All of these positive signs at the beginning of 2013 pointed to the need to rein in government spending and to strategically increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes).

Yet, the Congress has stubbornly refused to deal with the reality that our U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio has remained above 100 percent since 2013.

In early 2018, an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in late 2017 will push the U.S. national debt to $33 Trillion — 113 % of GDP — by 2028, a ratio not seen since immediately after World War II.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a sham (and a scam) which created a situation exactly opposite of what responsible elected officials should have supported.  The sooner it is  amended, repaired or repealed, the sooner the American people will be transitioned into a less dangerous and more stable and sustainable economic environment.

Economic and Fiscal Policy

February 12, 2019

Our current POTUS rarely stands still long enough for anyone to really examine how his positions and policies impact us in the present, or potentially in the future.

Here are a couple of observations which I managed to glean from rapidly moving targets:

Fiscal Policy:  Failure

By late 2017, the U.S. economy had enjoyed over 8 years of economic expansion (since June 2009), leading virtually all economists to conclude we were moving toward the end of an economic expansion cycle. Most experts agree that the government should constrain both borrowing and spending during an expansion phase, concurrently decreasing government debt.

When the expansion phase of a business cycle comes to an end, and the economy begins to sputter – and ultimately to contract – a government with reduced debt will have the capacity to spend more and tax less, helping to support the softening economy return to equilibrium faster and smoother.

The much-touted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted at the end of 2017 introduced a $1.5 Trillion tax cut, sold as a source of economic stimulus when it was least needed.

In times of economic expansion, the government is on notice to reduce its deficit.

On February 12, 2019, the national debt passed a new milestone, topping $22 Trillion for the first time.  According to the U.S. Treasury Department, total outstanding public debt hit $22.01 Trillion, up from the $19.95 Trillion when President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.  This is mighty dangerous stuff, folks.

Trade Policy:  Failure

Tariffs are a tax on consumption, paid by end users.

Over several decades, the U.S. developed a dependence on manufactured goods from China.  In turn, U.S. exports to China – predominantly agricultural and unfinished goods – enjoyed strong growth over time.

President Trump abruptly started a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. beginning in July 2018.

China quickly retaliated, raising tariffs on American goods imported into China, resulting in significant shifts by China to alternative sources.

Winners?  Brazil; Russia; Germany; Japan.

Losers?  American agricultural producers in Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Kansas; some American manufacturers; and American consumers overall.

It was once said, “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.

The evidence seems to emphatically refute that position.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid created in 1960, originally introduced as an anesthetic. Because it is synthetic, it can be easily and inexpensively made in a lab. It was approved by the FDA in the early 1990’s for use as a painkiller and anesthetic. It works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, but it does so faster — and in much smaller doses — than morphine or heroin. Like other opioids, it boosts levels of the chemical dopamine, which controls feelings of reward, pleasure, euphoria, and relaxation.

Today, Fentanyl is typically prescribed to treat patients who need long-term, around-the-clock relief from severe pain. When used for medical purposes, it is often given in a shot, a patch on the skin, or in lozenges.

China has become a global source of Fentanyl because (a) it can be easily and inexpensively made in a lab; and (b) the vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries in China are lightly regulated.

Some Fentanyl comes straight to the United States from China, while other shipments come in from China to Mexico (and to a lesser extent) Canada before making its way into the U.S.

There currently is no tariff on Fentanyl imported into the U.S. from any point of origin, which indicates that the Trump administration has missed a major revenue opportunity.

Common Sense Tax Reform

January 30, 2019

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently announced the launch of an exploratory committee to consider a 2020 White House bid, vowing to be a tenacious advocate for economic fairness and rebuilding the middle class.

Sen. Warren subsequently proposed an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” through which her campaign committee promises to raise some $3 Trillion in new federal tax revenues over the next 10 years.

Her proposal is not a tax on income; it is a tax on assets.

She identified some 75,000 U.S. families which hold assets in excess of $50 Million.

Her proposal is interesting, and it seems relatively simple.  All families with assets between $50 Million and $1 Billion would owe a 2% annual tax on assets valued in excess of $50 Million; and, the rate would rise to 3% on those assets that exceed $1 Billion.  What could go wrong?

Most appealing in the Warren proposal?

Senator Warren claims that this approach would affect just the wealthiest 0.1% of Americans, and that the incremental revenue generated through this novel approach could help rebuild the American middle class by providing for universal child care; student debt relief; and other critical societal needs.

What could go wrong?  Let us try to explore some possibilities.

The Warren plan anticipates that if your family holds $750 Million in gross assets, you would be facing a potential annual tax of $14 Million on those assets.

What the plan doesn’t mention is that for a fraction of that amount, you could employ lawyers and other experts to help value your assets quite differently.

One recent case study was illuminated by some extensive research conducted by the New York Times on the estate of Fred Trump.  https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-10-03/trump-taxes-fred-s-scheme-was-quite-impressive

Stay tuned.  There is more to come from The Walrus on “Common Sense Tax Reform”!

Since Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, there have been many commentaries on his financial history — particularly because he has refused to release his tax returns.

In 2016, David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner of The New York Times obtained Trump’s 1995 tax returns, and for their article published on the front page of The New York Times on October 3, 2018, they worked together for over a year to investigate the wealth that the president inherited from his father.

The narrative in the NY Times investigative piece is compelling.

Like most rules and regulations, U.S. tax law assumes that people will voluntarily comply in the interest of equity and fairness across the board.  If the laws are not fair, they should be amended, not circumvented.

Having worked in the real estate and financial services industry for many years, I am familiar with many of the strategies exposed in the article, particularly the rather arbitrary and capricious use of independent appraisals to determine market value at a point in time.

Where many — if not most — wealthy families and individuals pay their fair share of taxes (perhaps grudgingly), the Trump family has notoriously and conspicuously fought against taxing authorities, continually challenging assessments and levies as a part of their overall family business plan.

Note a recent kerfuffle in Westchester County, NY where a Trump National Golf Club is located.

With a 65,000 square foot club house, private gourmet restaurant, swimming pool, tennis pavilion and courts, the 18-hole, 7,261 yard Jim Fazio designed course is situated on 140+ acres of prime real estate in the Town of Ossining, NY.

This ultra-exclusive private club demands a hefty 5-figure initiation fee from new members, with minimum annual dues of $19,400.

In his 2017 Executive Branch Personal Financial Disclosure Report (filed 6/14/2017), Donald Trump revealed the value of his ownership interest in Trump National Golf Club – Westchester at ‘over $50,000,000.’ with annual personal income attributable to the Club of $9,771,428.

Yet, in 2015, the Trump Organization sued the town of Ossining to lower its assessment from the 2014 value of $13.5 Million to $1.4 Million in order to reduce property and school taxes.

After the feud with Ossining became public, Trump’s lawyers raised the dollar value of the golf course, but it was still nowhere near the official 2015 assessment of $14.3 million and 2016 assessed value of $15.1 million.

The moves are consistent with repeated efforts by the Trump Organization to challenge property valuations in an effort to win massive local property tax reductions, not to mention the potentially illicit impacts on federal, state and local income tax obligations which in many cases are directly linked to these local assessments (valuations).

Over the past several years, Trump has lauded himself as “one of the most successful businessmen in the world,” who paid “no more tax than legally required.”

“I have brilliantly used [the U.S. tax] laws,” Trump said at a campaign event in October 2016. “I was able to use the tax laws of this country, and my business acumen, to dig out of the real estate mess — you would call it a depression — when few others were able to do what I did.”

It was a reported $916 Million net operating loss in 1995 which gave Trump the ability to avoid paying taxes on more than $50 Million in annual taxable income over the following 18 years.

Make America Great Again? Only if others are willing to cough up the tax revenues needed to pay the freight.

Constitutional Conflicts

August 11, 2018

We frequently hear from advocates of the 1st amendment, the 2nd amendment, the 4th amendment, et al.

We don’t often hear about one of the key concerns of our ‘Founding Fathers’, perhaps best voiced by James Madison who said, “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

Indeed.

Madison and his colleagues made sure that one of the basic precepts of the U.S. Constitution was to ensure a separation of powers enforced through a series of checks and balances to prevent a single person (or branch of the federal government) from becoming too powerful, thus thwarting the potential for fraud, self-aggrandizement and to encourage timely correction of errors or omissions.

The system of checks and balances is intended to act as a circuit breaker over the separation of powers, balancing the authorities of the separate branches of government.

It assumes honest and impartial actions by each department charged with the responsibility to verify the appropriateness and legality of actions initiated by the others.

Never before Donald Trump have we had a senior elected federal official who refused to disclose the details of his finances.  And, in U.S. history there has never been a president for whom it was more important that we know the details of his finances.

Trump has a well-documented history as an incompetent and perhaps corrupt businessman. After election, he refused to divest himself of his holdings, providing an open window of opportunities for bad people to entice him – and his family – with unimaginable advantages.  Why?  Trump’s income comes from an incredibly complex web of companies that are impossible for outside observers to comprehend.

We know from public information that the Trump Organization is not just one company, but a very complex assemblage of pass-through entities.  In a March 2016 letter from his tax lawyers, Donald Trump’s financial situation is described as “inordinately large and complex for an individual” because he holds “interests as the sole or principal owner in approximately 500 separate entities (which) are collectively referred to and do business as The Trump Organization.”

Now, more than 18 months after Trump was inaugurated, The Trump Organization continues to bring in money from deals involving potentially questionable characters and foreign governments possibly looking to influence POTUS. We have no idea who his partners in those hundreds of pass-through companies are, and whether they might have compromising information on him.

How can it be that we have allowed Mr. Trump to get away with keeping his tax returns secret?

Why?

Members of Congress have abdicated their role as arbiters of Executive Branch ethics by refusing to demand release of current (2014 – 2017) business and personal federal income tax returns from Donald Trump, The Trump Organization, and any relevant and/or related entities.

We can only conclude that this is clear evidence of dereliction of duty by these officials whom we elected to represent the interests of the American people.

Economically and financially competent American voters must demand full and immediate disclosure of current tax returns by senior elected officials, particularly at the executive and legislative level.

If they who wish to serve don’t wish to disclose, they shouldn’t run for public office.

If they who are elected refuse to disclose, they should automatically be removed from public office.

No exceptions. No excuses.