Why Are So Many Traders Killing Themselves?

This column is not about working too hard, or the dangers of high cholesterol, or lack of exercise. It is about a rash of suicides within the financial community. What this actually means is less certain than the reporting on it might imply.

Yesterday, 47-year-old Edmund Reilly, a trader at the Vertical Group, jumped in front of a Long Island Rail Road Train, and was pronounced dead at the scene. That led to an article from the New York Post reporting that this was one of many recent suicides of people in the financial industry. IBT had a headline last fall “Suicide Among Bankers Appears To Be On The Rise Again As Pressures To Get Banks And Businesses Back In The Black Takes Its Toll.”

The Post was so kind as to include a list of a half dozen other suicides this year by people working in finance. A quick search reveals many other finance suicides in recent months. “Banker Suicides” even has its own Wikipedia page.

In the world of high finance, the latest problem is taking one’s own life.

Or is it?

I don’t want to be glib about a sad and morbid subject, but it is premature for these lists of recent suicides to be trotted out by the tabloids with the not-so-subtle implication that this is a trend. Before we start setting up counseling sessions for “at risk” traders and bankers, a little statistical analysis might be in order. Consider the following questions:

  • Are we seeing an actual increase in suicides, or is this an increase in articles about suicides?
  • What are the rates of intentionally causing one’s own death within the finance community relative to the population as a whole? Are these rates stable, or is this changing?
  • What is the overall trend in this form of death?
  • How does this compare to the historical data?

After a cursory search, I didn’t see much in the way of academic studies or long-term data on the suicide rates of the American finance worker. However, there are lots of data about this cause of death in this country. According to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), 38,364 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.” Since 2000, suicides have been rising. From 10.4 per 100,000 people in 1990, the rate gradually crept up to 12.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2010. This is approaching the 1990 level of 12.5.

What does this mean for people in this industry? Probably, very little. So far, we have seen nothing more anecdotal stories and selective news coverage. And now that its been brought to your attention, you will begin to see more stories, if only due to your new-found awareness and the process of selective perception.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the seventh leading cause of death for men, versus the 15th leading cause for women. Men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women. In an industry with a dearth of women, perhaps that could explain some of the discrepancy (if any) versus the broader population.

Regardless, this morbid fascination of suicides within the community of financial professionals may be nothing more than random fluctuations in data. We won’t know until someone actually studies the data.

Originally published as Why Are So Many Traders (Literally) Killing Themselves?

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