It’s one of the most deeply ingrained pop-culture images of Wall Street—the distraught stockbroker out on the window ledge. During the bank bailouts in September, protesters outside the New York Stock Exchange carried signs scrawled with the word “Jump.” And a recent New Yorker cartoon made light of a banker who’d thrown himself out his office window. Now, as the crisis deepens, satire is giving way to reality. At least six suicides have already been linked to the stock market collapse.
The most recent is that of German billionaire Adolf Merckle, whose bad investment bets threatened to bring down his empire. He was killed by a train. Others include René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, a French money manager who lost US$1 billion of his clients’ money in the Madoff scandal. A few days before Christmas he took sleeping pills, then slashed his left arm with a box cutter. London financier Kirk Stephenson threw himself in front of a train. Russell Smith, a Deutsche Bank financial adviser, killed himself after advising family friends to invest in a fund that lost them $13 million. In his suicide note he apologized for the losses and said, “I cannot survive this, financially or otherwise.” Meanwhile, Barry Fox, a former analyst at failed securities firm Bear Stearns, jumped from his 29th-storey apartment after losing his job.
The idea of the suicidal stockbroker is rooted firmly in the stock market crash of October 1929. News coverage of bankers jumping to their deaths was so intense that sidewalks began to be seen as unsafe, according to historian Charles Geisst’s Wall Street: A History. But for all the attention the deaths received, the phenomenon was limited. In his book The Great Crash, John Kenneth Galbraith found the suicide rate didn’t increase at all in New York during the months of the crash. Nor were there many actual cases of Wall Street types jumping. Instead, the “suicide myth” grew out of the popular belief that broken speculators are predisposed to self-destruction.
Still, as the crisis intensifies, and investors’ blood lust grows, it’s likely we’ll see more stories about stockbrokers pushed to the edge.