Donald Trump almost lost his shirt 15 years ago when the North American real estate bubble burst. The 2007 version of that disaster will be much more benign, the real estate magnate predicts, although there is softness in some urban markets, such as Toronto and San Francisco.
"We're talking very minor [problems]compared with the depression of the early 1990s," Mr. Trump said yesterday in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
Mr. Trump said he is poised to invest in depressed property as the downturn moves through individual cities. "People have been talking about the end of the cycle for 12 years, and I'm excited if it is," he said. "I've always made more money in bad markets than in good markets."
One of those soft-market cities could be Toronto, where Mr. Trump acknowledges sales of a projected Trump luxury condo and hotel complex on Bay Street are not doing as well as first anticipated.
"It's a different market than it was -- it is going more slowly," he said, adding that his sales people are being extremely cautious. "I would rather have them be cautious than rush into anything," he said.
He predicted the Toronto project would go ahead, but then added "if it doesn't, I'm going to be in Toronto anyway."
He said Toronto is one of the great cities where he intends to have a real estate presence.
The New York developer's rebound from near bankruptcy in the early 1990s helped buff his reputation as a deal maker, contributing to his current media celebrity. He will be in Toronto this weekend for one of the roaming "real estate wealth expos" put on by the Learning Annex, a private educational outfit. His $1.5-million (U.S.) fee for the event will go to charity.
Mr. Trump shrugged off concerns that a crisis in U.S. subprime mortgage lending, which caters to poor credit risks, would spread to the wider property market, including Mr. Trump's luxury buildings.
"I don't see the subprime problems affecting the higher-end stuff," he said. In fact, he is advising investors that there are now great deals in buying subprime mortgages at a discount and repossessed houses at low prices.
Mr. Trump, 60, said that as he got older, he became more conservative in his borrowing. "I'm the most underleveraged now than I've ever been in my life. I almost feel uncomfortable."
While he would not disclose his debt load, he said it was far below proportional levels of 1992, when his much smaller holdings were carrying $9-billion (U.S.) in debt, including $900-million personally guaranteed by him.
As values plummeted, he became dramatically overleveraged. He denied reports that he was bailed out by his wealthy family, insisting that, while his family provided verbal support, he escaped ruin through the patience of his banks.
Mr. Trump said that his current low-debt portfolio represents a bet that the market will remain somewhat soft for some time. If he is wrong, and the market is about to roll higher, it would be better to have more leverage on his books.
"I think I'm in great shape because I think the market is a little unsettling, I think the war in Iraq is a total catastrophe, I think it's been handled horribly by the President and lot of crazy things can happen."
For the moment, he said, conditions vary widely from city to city. New York and Los Angeles are very strong, he said, while Chicago is "okay," and San Francisco joins Toronto in the weaker category.
He said that two years ago, when the market was at an all-time high, he was telling people not to buy real estate. "Now I'm telling them to do it."