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Julien Behal/PA Wire
The funeral for wealthy Irish businessman and socialite Patrick Rocca.

Recession Woes Taking Deadly Toll on Some Financiers

January 22, 2009 12:03 PM
by Anne Szustek
The suicides of Irish developer Patrick Rocca and other high-profile businessmen show how the global recession can be particularly devastating to some type-A personalities.

Mental Depression in the Face of Financial Recession

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On Monday, Patrick Rocca, an Irish financier, was found shot dead at his home in the posh Dublin suburb of Holmeleigh in an apparent suicide.

Rocca, in 2007, had an estimated fortune of some £429.9 million ($647 million), and Bloomberg dubbed him the “real-estate tycoon.” He was heavily involved in property markets by way of his company Accorp Properties and apparently had heavy investments in Irish banks pegged for nationalization due to credit crunch concerns.

“From what I know, Patrick had more than €20 million tied up with Anglo [Irish Bank],” a bank coming under Irish conservatorship, an unnamed Irish newspaper source was quoted as saying by The Times of London. “News of the nationalisation was known to have come as a huge shock to him,” the source continued.

But according to sources, the suddenness of his death was perhaps the greater surprise. His suicide “sent shockwaves through the beau mode of Dublin’s wealthy cocktail society,” writes The Times of London.

When Bill Clinton was in town, Rocca let the former U.S. president use his helicopter. His sister is the life partner of singer Van Morrison. Rocca, his “glamorous” wife, as the Times calls her, and their three children, summered on the Spanish island of Marbella, where he played tennis with British businessman and “Apprentice” personality Sir Alan Sugar.

This past weekend he was seen out with his wife at the members-only club Residence on Stephen’s Green and having dinner with friends on Sunday evening, according to the Times.

Soon after his neighbors saw Rocca fumbling around his yard Monday morning in his pajamas, he apparently shot himself, “like a bell tolling the end of the heady days of Ireland’s rampant consumerism and ostentatious exuberance,” wrote the Times.

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Background: The rise and fall of Ireland’s economy

The transformation from one of Europe’s poorest nations to a high-tech upstart beckoned foreigners to the Emerald Isle, earning Ireland’s economy the moniker “Celtic Tiger”. During the decade leading up to Sept. 2008, Ireland had seen 7.2 percent annual growth.

Yet after years of expansion, the Ireland Central Statistics Office released figures last September that confirmed the Celtic Tiger was officially in a recession. The country is seeing the highest unemployment rates in more than a decade. While long-time residents struggled with the economy, immigrants returned to their home countries, such as Poland, which were becoming upstart "tiger" markets, sometimes at Ireland's expense. For example, Dell moved its plant from Limerick, Ireland to Poland earlier this month.

In effect, the Tiger is being laid to rest. The death of Rocca, who was given last rites on Wednesday, “represents the human cost of the months and months of bad economic news and plummeting financial figures,” writes Gerry O’Carroll, a columnist for Irish paper Evening Herald. “Rocca was the embodiment of the success of the Celtic Tiger economy. A man who had everything.”

So why do some financiers who have everything think they have nothing to live for?

Context: Corporate executives and suicide during recessions

Rocca’s apparent suicide is but one of many among high-profile financiers during the current recession.

The morning of Dec. 23, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, the founder and CEO of Access International Advisors, an investment fund that lost $1.4 billion it had invested in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, was found dead at his office in midtown Manhattan.

A source close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it seemed “highly likely” that he committed suicide, Reuters reported. Authorities indicated that “de la Villehuchet was found in his office with injuries to his arms, having apparently slit his wrists,” according to The New York Times DealBook.

Earlier this month, German financier Adolf Merckle was found dead on train tracks in the small town of Blaubeuren, Germany. Authorities ruled it a suicide, although locals suspect foul play. On Oct. 28, Merckle, who had holdings in the financial and cement sectors, apparently lost €400 million ($530 million) in a short squeeze on Volkswagen stock. According to The New York Times, Merckle’s main investment company VEM Vermögensverwaltung owed 30 creditors, including Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank.

The same week as Merckle’s death, Steven Good, the chair of well-known Chicago real estate auction firm Sheldon Good & Co., was found in a forest in Kane County, Ill., on the Chicago metro’s outskirts, dead in an apparent suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, said authorities. Paralleling reactions to Rocca’s death, Good’s friends and associates expressed disbelief at his passing: "The guy was just very positive, always smiling, always telling you a story," Chicago Association of Realtors spokesperson Barbara Matthopoulos, told CNN. "Everyone is really very shocked."

According to mental health experts, there is a rise in suicides during recessions. Type-A personalities—often the profile of high-ranking financiers—often have a harder time dealing with financial difficulty, as they see their losses, whether they hit their companies or their own portfolios, as a personal failure.

"I am seeing it, in particular, in people who are prone to shame. They build their whole identity around being successful. If they don't have someone watching them, they are at risk," Chicago-area psychologist Nancy Molitor told CNN.

“Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline went from 412,768 in 2007 up to 540,041 in 2008,” writes CNN. And according to the calculations of M. Harvey Brenner, public health professor for Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Texas Health Center, there may be as many as 1,200 additional suicides above the annual average of 32,000 due to the recession.

These numbers show that a small percentage of Americans will take their lives due to the economic crisis.

But there’s something different about this recession. Brenner says this downturn, unlike others, has particularly hit the ultra-wealthy, who are often unaccustomed to going through life without a financial cushion.

"You would think these people have such wonderful lives," Molitor told CNN. "Yet they are capable of losing much more, because they have so much more."

Reference: Help for depression and anxiety online

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