If Donald Trump wants to recoup some of the money he's lost in the Atlantic City casino wars, all he has to do is sell a soap opera based on the real-life struggle over the troubled Taj Mahal casino hotel in Atlantic City. "Taj!" would make the wheeling and dealing in "Dallas" look like penny ante stuff.
"Taj!" would have almost everything: power, greed, conniving, big money and big names. The only thing missing is sex, and that's probably around, somewhere.
The background, by now, is familiar. The Taj Mahal, which Trump in happier days called his "ultimate property," has so far proven to be the ultimate disaster. Trump ran out of money before he finished the Taj, and even though the building opened in April, it isn't generating enough cash to pay the interest on its bonds. There is a $47.25 million interest payment due Nov. 15 on the Taj's $675 million of bonds and Trump, by his own admission, hasn't got the money to pay.
But even though Trump spends a lot of time onstage negotiating with the bondholders, he is rapidly becoming a minor character. For someone like Trump, being dealt out of the game is more humiliating than losing it.
The real power in the Trump camp lies with Trump's bankers, not with The Donald. The bankers are hiding offstage. If Taj bondholders insist on having Trump put up money as part of a plan to reorganize the Taj's finances, the only way Trump can satisfy them is by getting a new loan from his bankers. But Trump's recently concluded bailout loan forbids him from investing any new loans in the Taj, in his New York-Washington-Boston airplane shuttle or in several of the other assets he owns.
Meanwhile, another character is waiting offstage -- Stephen Wynn, chairman of the Golden Nugget casino company. Although Golden Nugget says it's not interested in the Taj, the right offer will doubtless change Wynn's mind.
Remember that we're dealing with egos and power here, not only money. A few years ago, when he was at the height of his power, Trump was talking trash about Wynn, making snotty remarks that questioned Wynn's competence. Trump even took a run at buying control of Golden Nugget.
Wynn is not the kind to forget an insult, and certainly not one from Trump, whom he despises. Now that Wynn is riding high -- his billion-dollar Mirage casino hotel in Las Vegas is a big winner -- and Trump is vulnerable, Wynn would have to have the forbearance of a saint not to torment him, at least a little.
Here's what's going on. Trump wants the Taj bondholders to exchange their bonds for a package that includes stock in the Taj and bonds with a smaller face amount. But no matter how pretty the ribbons in which Trump wraps his package, he will be asking the Taj's bondholders to take a loss to give him a profit.
The reason is obvious. As things stand now, Trump's 100 percent of the Taj Mahal's stock is worth nothing, because there are more than $800 million of claims on the building -- the $675 million of bonds, a $50 million bank loan, unpaid contractors, a $35 million claim by Trump's companies -- and the building isn't worth anything like $800 million.
How do I know that? Because the building doesn't produce enough income to pay the interest on its $675 million of bonds. If it can't pay interest on $675 million of bonds, it isn't worth $675 million, let alone $800 million.
If the bondholders swap their bonds for a combination of stock and new bonds in a financially viable Taj Mahal, Trump's piece of New Taj would be worth at least something -- which is more than the nothing his stock is worth today. In other words, part of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.
Because a Taj deal would give value to Trump's stock, the bondholders want him to pay something as part of the deal, in addition to giving up his $35 million of claims.
Look at Merv Griffin and Resorts International. Merv recently agreed to put up $26 million for 22 percent of New Resorts, which is about to emerge from Chapter 11. That's on top of the $60 million he put up to buy Resorts in 1988, only to have it fall into bankruptcy last year.
Trump, of course, doesn't have $26 million -- and won't have it unless the banks lend it to him. His only bargaining chip, if bondholders insist on new cash and his banks aren't forthcoming, is to turn in his Taj gambling license and walk away. A default on the Taj bonds would put Trump in violation of his recent bailout deal with his banks, but at that point, he might not care anymore.
Which is where Steve Wynn comes in. Maybe. The Taj bondholders, knowing that they need an alternative to Trump to extract the best deal from Trump's banks, have begun to whisper that Wynn is nosing around the Taj.
I couldn't get Wynn on the phone. A Golden Nugget spokesman insisted that the company has no interest in the Atlantic City Taj. "We would be more likely to buy the real Taj Mahal" in India, the spokesman said, laughing.
Will Trump go belly up in Atlantic City or will the banks rescue him at the last moment? Will the Taj bondholders take gas? Will Steve Wynn or someone else appear on stage at the last moment and make off with the biggest and ugliest building ever seen in the state of New Jersey? Tune in to "Taj!" It should be a great show.