The rise and fall of Donald Trump is a super-attractive news story, with all of the elements of glamour, glitz, greed and gambling necessary to make it a must for editors of the Wall Street Journal as well as the National Enquirer.
Trump made financial mistakes in such a grand way that Joe Sixpack, who stubs his toes regularly on a lesser scale, is bound to gloat a bit.
But behind what is clearly a personal disaster for Trump -- he now will have to work for the very banks that he so neatly deluded into lending him tons of money -- there lurks a more important story.
And that is the revelation of just how irresponsible have been Trump's major banks -- Chase Manhattan, Citibank, Bankers Trust and Manufacturers Hanover -- who ladled out huge loans with few questions asked.
Newsweek quotes a lawyer who worked with Trump: "Donald Trump could have walked into any bank and said, 'I want $25 million,' and nobody would ask for a financial statement. They'd say, 'Donald Trump, $25 million? Done!' " He did, after all, have a spectacular track record with the rebuilding of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Trump Tower in New York City.
But soon, Trump was taking on a huge amount of junk bond debt with apparently little attention to whether the cash flow from ventures such as the Trump Shuttle and the Plaza Hotel would cover his interest payments.
There are striking parallels between the financial collapse of the Robert Campeau empire and Trump's house of cards. Campeau -- the flamboyant French Canadian given to the same kind of high-living, high-profile existence that titillated Trump -- ran a merchandising empire into bankruptcy. Both got their start in real estate, both had initial successes and both overreached themselves, taking on staggering amounts of debt that ultimately they couldn't service.
A leading New York investment banker put it to me this way: "You can blame the banks and the junk bond peddlers. They pumped narcissists like Campeau and Trump full of money and, in the process, the banks became their prisoners. It's bull ... to suggest that the banks are lending Trump another $60 million to prevent a fire sale of his assets. The fact is that Trump's properties are salable only at huge losses. The way I see it, Trump is wiped out in terms of owning substantial equity. Right now, he's working for the banks."
The question of why bankers -- who are supposed to be "prudential" (which means handling their depositors' money with care) -- gave loans to Trump on such easy terms is one that the shareholders of the banks ought to be asking. A European banker, visiting here this week, said: "We just don't understand it."
Shareholders might well pursue class-action suits against the managements of these banks to fix the blame and demand compensation for what are sure to be heavy losses.
There is a striking analogy between the way big banks shoveled billions of dollars into Third World countries in the 1970s and early 1980s -- with no notion of how they would be paid back -- and the manner in which they let Trump have hundreds of millions, without being sure he could meet his bills. In the case ofthe Third World, the guiding principle was one articulated by former Citibank chairman Walter Wriston: Sovereign countries couldn't go broke.
Similarly, the Trump mystique was such that the banks couldn't visualize that he'd ever be in trouble. He was supposed to have the Midas touch. So his bankers didn't take as much care in parceling out millions to him as they do in making loans of just a few bucks to individuals or small businessman.
The carelessness of commercial banks points up a potentially sickening parallel with the savings and loan institutions. Although supervision of commercial banks by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) has been consistently better than the supervision of S&Ls by the old Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. (FSLIC), bank failures have mounted in alarming fashion in recent years, especially because of questionable real estate loans such as the ones that were made to support Trump's casino operations in Atlantic City.
After the disastrous bank failures of the Depression era in the 1930s, there was only a scattering of bank closings until the mid-1970s. With deregulation, bank failures steadily increased, hitting 120 in 1985, 138 in 1986, 184 in 1987, 200 in 1988, 206 in 1989 and 85 through June 11 of this year.
About four commercial banks have failed every week on average over the last two or three years. That's as many as were closed annually in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
On a scale of 1 to 5 -- with 5 representing a high probability of failure, and 4 a serious but less critical situation -- the FDIC reports that at the end of 1989, 1,109 banks out of 13,230 were rated either 4 or 5. That means that roughly 1 of out every 12 banks in the nation is a "problem" bank. If you're a stockholder, that should give you something to worry about.
If you're a depositor, it's true that Uncle Sam insures your money up to $100,000 in every bank account. But remember the S&L lesson: As a taxpayer, you, your children and your grandchildren won't come off unscathed as these financial institutions weaken.