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I have seen several claims that Trump would be worth significantly more if he had just invested his father's money in an index.

I have made myself very rich

Bloomberg puts Trump's current net worth at $2.9 billion... if Trump had just put his father's money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he'd have $8 billion.
- Deborah Friedell, London Review of Books

Claims range anywhere 3 to 10 billion dollars that he is currently worth (upper range seems to just be his own imaginary assessment), and from 8 to 20 billion dollars that he would be worth if he just invested in a mutual fund.

  • How do you even evaluate his current net worth?
  • What is the best estimate of his current net worth?
    • The comments have mentioned it might not even be a billion dollars, but not backed that up with any citation.
  • How much money did he inherit?
  • How much money would he have made if he parked that money in an unmanaged index fund over that time?
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    Actually, I have seen credible claims that Trump is worth less than $1 billion. – Daniel R Hicks Feb 12 '17 at 5:40
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    I would like to see an Answer to "How do you even evaluate his current net worth?". Where does this info come from exactly. He rents out his name (as do Bell and Howell, and Polaroid) and claims his name is thus worth hundreds of millions. – Keith McClary Feb 12 '17 at 5:41
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    @KeithMcClary - accounting term is "intangible asset" (which is basically what all brands are). And valuations of that are... less precise than might be desirable. – user5341 Feb 12 '17 at 18:43
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    Matt Levine wrote a thorough takedown of this claim. (In case you are lazy to read, the biggest problem is that the calculation assumes Trump would have invested all his wealth in the exact moment which we now, with the benefit of 40 years hindsight, know to be the most advantageous one. So yes, if Trump could see into the future, he could be richer know. That's not a reasonable baseline for having good business skills.) – Tgr Feb 12 '17 at 23:06
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    @DanielRHicks many people would consider him as a liability rather than an asset. American phraseology of someone's "worth" is always troubling me. – Antzi Feb 13 '17 at 2:01
67

Follow the citations

TL;DR: Politifact ruled the claim False.

Politifact found that Deborah Friedell was quoting Michael Antonio (who wrote Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success) who was misquoting the National Journal. He sort of pushed the two quotes together, taking the parts that sounded best from both.

Or look at the source

The claim in the National Journal said:

Had the celebrity busi­ness­man and Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in­ves­ted his even­tu­al share of his fath­er’s real-es­tate com­pany in­to a mu­tu­al fund of S&P 500 stocks in 1974, it would be worth nearly $3 bil­lion today, thanks to the mar­ket’s per­form­ance over the past four dec­ades. If he’d in­ves­ted the $200 mil­lion that For­bes magazine de­term­ined he was worth in 1982 in­to that in­dex fund, it would have grown to more than $8 bil­lion today.

First problem, that only gets him to $3 billion.

Second problem, to get to $8 billion, we have to take Donald Trump's wealth in 1982 and put it in a mutual fund. Not his father's.

Third problem, he'd have to sit on the money. He wouldn't have been able to spend any of it. Even modest withdrawals, starting in 1982, would have left him further and further off this pace. He certainly couldn't have funded the Trump lifestyle.

Fourth problem, this completely ignores taxes.

The bare argument of 1974 is based on Trump taking over managing the business in 1974. But that is not the same thing as transferring wealth. His father still owned the business from 1974 to 1999.

The National Journal is suggesting that when he took over management of the company, he could have liquidated and put the money into a mutual fund. If we assume that his share of the company was worth $40 million in 1974, then his share would have been worth $3 billion in 2015 (when the article was written). Of course, that neglects taxes and spending. Neither he nor his father could have taken an income from that money.

Taxes

I'm not going to do the math but here's a glance at taxes. The privileged capital gains rate of 15% doesn't date back continuously to 1974 and is the lowest rate during that time. The rate was more typically 20%, 28%, or 35%.

The estate tax in 1999 was 55% of amounts over $650,000.

A glance at the numbers

The same kind of estimates that put Donald Trump's wealth in the $3-5 billion range now put his father between $100 million and $300 million at the time of his death. The S&P 500 only grew from $1,248.77 on January 1st, 1999 to $2,316.10 now.

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    This uses the wrong S&P 500 figures. It should use the S&P 500 Net Return, not Price figures. – Oddthinking Feb 13 '17 at 0:59
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    @Oddthinking I apologize. I accidentally sent that last comment before it was complete. In reality, none of the measures is appropriate. Even Net Return, which may be closest, isn't accurate because it assumes a tax rate that is much lower than the Trump portfolio would incur. – D Krueger Feb 13 '17 at 1:54
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    @DKrueger: Agreed, but we should give the claimant the best possible chance before declaring them wrong. Using the price-only figure is unfair to the claimant. – Oddthinking Feb 13 '17 at 1:57
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    The comments have seemed to cast a lot of doubt here. I'm curious if anyone else will venture an answer. – Some Guy Feb 13 '17 at 5:17
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    @SomeGuy: Nah, our comments are bickering about small details. Politifact cover the big picture. – Oddthinking Feb 13 '17 at 12:15

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