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Zell tackles tax reform, Trump's infrastructure plan

Comprehensive tax reform is possible even if it now seems like a distant and high hill to climb, real estate mogul Sam Zell said at an April 6 conference in New York.

During a Q&A early at New York University's annual REIT symposium, Zell weighed in on the issue as well as President Trump's infrastructure ambitions.

House Republicans, having failed to repeal Obamacare, have turned their attention to the tax code and say tax reform likely will be an easier task. Legislators' aim is to boost U.S. business competitiveness, but some real estate industry observers fear tax code provisions favorable to their business, like 1031 "like kind" exchanges, will be nixed in the process.

In his remarks, Zell circled back to 1986, to the last major overhaul of the tax code, a time when tax reform also seemed unlikely.

"As late as early October, there was absolutely 100% agreement that there would be no tax reform, and that it was impossible to get a deal done. ... And then something happened. And in literally 15 days, we went from no tax reform to a pretty brutal change in circumstances," he said. "I think something like that is possible in this environment."

Others were less optimistic that reform will be passed this year. On one panel, Green Street's Mike Kirby encouraged a level of preparedness-planning but called reform a "low-probability event" in 2017.

"I don't know if it's going to get done this year," Kirby, chairman and director of research at the firm, said. "Probably not. But if it does, it's a really really big deal for real estate."

Kirby said low-debt REITs could come out "really looking pretty good" in a new environment where businesses can no longer deduct mortgage interest, referring to one of the potential reforms on the table, but he sees the possibility of a border-adjustment tax as a great unknown and potential negative.

"If I'm going to tax every product made abroad much heavier than I do anything that's made here ... I don't know what that does to the creditworthiness of retailers," he said. "It's not good."

Asked to address Trump's infrastructure goals, Zell applauded the president's move to bring REIT industry veteran Steven Roth of Vornado Realty Trust, as well as fellow New York developer Richard LeFrak, into the fray. He said Trump's intentions are likely "nothing but the best" but issued a warning about creeping environmental regulation that could derail large-scale projects.

"The only way we're going to get anything done with infrastructure is if we are able to superimpose the benefits and objectives of the whole country over those of the tree huggers," he said. "I don't mean to be a cynic. I think ... the environmentalists, to a large extent, have the best for the country in mind. But the reality is, if the process is going to polarize and paralyze everything going forward, sitting in the trees when the rest of society can't function, or you can't cross the bridge to get to the trees, I don't think is a winning formula."