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Donald Trump wants to make me money. He mailed me an invitation to be his “personal guest” at a “Creating Wealth Summit.” Enclosed were two “Special Guest VIP” tickets and a waiver of the “suggested tuition fee” of $149. I wasn’t the only person so favored. Someone else in my condo building received the same invitation. As did one of my editors at Legal Times. And . . . well, perhaps you too, dear reader in the D.C. metropolitan area, have received this note from the Donald. You, of course, were busy billing and, even if curious, didn’t have an entire day to spend on such a thing. So let me report back. Some of what I saw at the seminar was amusing, and some of it was interesting. (The lawyers seemed to give the better presentations.) But some of it was sad: I fear that I may have watched some unsophisticated people plunk down thousands of dollars by credit card, which they may not have been especially able to afford, to obtain information potentially available for free from their local libraries. ‘YOUR PERSONAL GOLD MINE’ The day before the June 26 conference, I received an e-mail from “Donald J. Trump.” The e-mail promised that the event would be “one of the greatest financial highlights of your life.” My editors, not entirely convinced, warned that Legal Times would not reimburse me for the purchase of any time shares. The seminar was held at the Renaissance Washington, D.C., hotel. There were about 500 people in the ballroom, with a mix of races and ages from the 20s through the 50s. About 40 percent were women. Very few men wore suits. The first seminar addressed the subject with which I am most familiar — stock market investing (or, as the Trump literature put it, how to “Turn Wall Street Into Your Own Personal Gold Mine”). The presenter, David Craig, started off well. He told audience members to live within their means, invest, and find a mentor to guide them. He noted — correctly — that brokers and financial managers frequently have big conflicts of interest and that most professionals cannot beat the stock market indexes. He plugged Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street (2007), a fine book (and the subject of my March 5 column). Whether you read books or not, Craig said, you’ve got to read Malkiel’s book. And then everything went downhill. Malkiel spends most of Random Walk demolishing claims that various types of analysis can allow investors to reliably outperform the market. Malkiel concludes that a decision to invest in index funds (which I never heard Craig mention) is a “no brainer.” In contrast to this conclusion about index funds, Craig was selling a training seminar on how to use an online subscription program called Investools (www.marketinvestor.com). Supposedly, the program would help individuals find and buy the best stocks. If you just followed the green arrows, you could earn great returns. “It’s like a piece of cake,” Craig said. And while the normal price for the training to use the program was almost $6,000, attendees at the Trump seminar could get access for just $1,999. I watched as people headed to the back of the room to pay their money. If they had paused to think, they might have realized that mutual fund managers have access to this same type of information (and far more), yet still fail to beat the market. But these people thought they would succeed where the professionals failed because of a computer program sold at get-rich seminars. They knew the odds against beating the market — Craig had told them — yet apparently they concluded that the statistics wouldn’t apply to them. Those green arrows would make them rich. After Craig came other presenters. Former plaintiffs attorney Robert Bluhm covered asset protection. He discussed tax strategies, for instance, such as forming a C corporation to deduct a variety of personal expenses and establishing a charitable remainder trust to pass assets to family members and avoid taxes on capital gains. Some trusts, he said, can be set up in “10 minutes before you go to bed.” (Um, I probably don’t need to say this to Legal Times readers, but please, please talk with tax counsel before deducting the kitchen sink. I have a nagging suspicion that these subjects may be slightly more complicated.) Most of the discussion focused on techniques to protect assets against lawsuits. Most people, said Bluhm, own assets either in their own name, in joint ownership, or in a living trust. He recommended shifting assets into a family limited partnership, to keep creditors’ hands off. To learn more about asset protection and acquire the proper forms, Bluhm was offering a kit that, he said, sold for $6,000. But at the seminar, it was available for $2,995. People hurried to buy. I was curious about family limited partnerships, so after the seminar, I looked for the asset protection kit on eBay. Never-used copies of the $6,000 kit seemed to be selling for a few hundred dollars. It’s offered for sale so often, however, that I may wait and try to get it for less than $70. Well, maybe. I might do fine just by visiting my local law library. The other lawyer-presenter was George Ross, one of Trump’s real estate attorneys (who has also appeared on the television show “The Apprentice”). He discussed negotiation tips and didn’t try to sell anything. At the end, attendees were handed his book Trump-Style Negotiation (2006). Bravo for Ross. In addition, one presenter explained how to invest in real estate tax liens, which can offer high rates of interest. Normally, the kit on tax liens sells for $4,285, but seminar attendees could purchase it for a mere $1,995. And finally, a speaker told colorful anecdotes about his success in real estate investing. People could pay to learn more. THAT 20 PERCENT At least two of the speakers estimated that 20 percent of attendees would purchase packages for “advanced training.” If you assume 500 people and an average price of $2,000, the organizers may have made $200,000 in sales that day. Did that 20 percent who bought the packages make wise investment decisions? Perhaps. Maybe they’re all well-off, able to put a few thousand dollars on their credit cards and pay off the balance at the end of the month without any difficulty. And maybe we all should rush out to buy the stock-picking program with the green arrows, start looking for ways to deduct our vacations as real estate business expenses, and start bidding at tax auctions. But I have serious doubts. And perhaps more significantly, I’m concerned for those seminar attendees who did not recognize that they should have had doubts. The attendees certainly saw a great show. The speakers were polished and engaging, sprinkling in everything from jokes to Bible verses. They were skilled at moving an audience, and they made even technical material about tax liens and incorporation sound lively. Yet I had to wonder how much money that 20 percent had handed to smooth-talking salesmen over the years. If they had simply invested their money in a lifestyle mutual fund (which provides a balanced portfolio in a single fund), they might be much closer to financial independence. These people came to the seminar looking for honest financial information. Some of them left with thousands of dollars in new credit card debt. For Donald Trump, such a bill would not be a problem. I just hope it isn’t for his “special guests.”
Robert L. Rogers, associate opinion editor at Legal Times , writes the Legal Tender column on personal finance. E-mail [email protected] with comments or suggestions for future columns.

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