5 Famous Wall Street Meltdowns

By Andrew Beattie | August 11, 2010 AAA

Support for Steven Slater's momentary meltdown and unique exit from his job suggests that people can sympathize with "just losing it" under pressure. The financial industry loads a different kind of pressure on its participants than does Jet Blue, but there is no shortage of unique meltdowns. We'll look at some famous financial figures who have gone off the deep end.

Peter Young
Peter Young bent the rules at Morgan Grenfell to get around limitations preventing funds from owning 10% of any company. He set up holding companies and dummy corporations to disguise speculative buys. This activity earned him an SEC and FBI investigation and a court date - a scandal, yes, but fairly dry by Wall Street standards.

However, when Young showed up at court in a dress, things got interesting. Many still thought he was trying to get away with a thinly veiled act, until it came out that Young had tried to make a more permanent gender alteration by himself. The judge voided his own guilty verdict on the sexually confused rogue trader. (For more, see our answer to the investment question, How did Peter Young gain infamy as a "rogue trader"?)

Jesse Livermore
Jesse Livermore seemed unbreakable. He started out in the bucket shops and moved through Wall Street like a force of nature. Livermore made and lost fortunes with seeming ease, building it up again each time he went under.

Despite making a fortune in the crash of 1929, Livermore somehow entered the 1930s near broke and unable to trade like he used to due to the new regulations on the market. With his last-ditch effort at a book a failure, Livermore slipped into a deep depression that ended in a hotel courtroom and a pistol. (Learn more in our article, Jesse Livermore: Lessons From A Legendary Trader.)

Ivan Krueger
Ivan Krueger will always be a hard one to peg. Was he a flawed businessman or a crook from the start? Krueger used huge amounts of debt to consolidate three-quarters of the world's match production. It was a running business, and it could have been profitable if not for the huge amount of debt and the constant stream of dividends needed to keep investors confident - and confidently buying up more debt.

Krueger's attempts to deal with his problems became more and more desperate, as he began cooking the books. Yet he never ceased his lavish lifestyle of expensive wine, women and art. When his matchstick empire started to burn, Krueger dressed in his tailor-made clothes and took the same exit as Livermore - just in more luxurious surroundings.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes didn't go crazy under a moment's pressure, but instead through a long decline into a compulsive dementia. Hughes was wildly successful as a businessman and one of the great figures of the day with his daring flights and forays into Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hughes will be remembered today mostly from a parody on "The Simpsons".

Toward the end of his life, Hughes was obsessed with germs, movies on continuous loops, banana ripple ice cream and intravenous drugs. Even his Mormon bodyguards couldn't protect him from the latter. Hughes died and needed to be fingerprinted for identification purposes, because his emaciated body looked nothing like the famous aviator. (For related reading, see our article Wall Street History: Howard Hughes, Enron And Sin Taxes.)

Edges And Ledges
What can we take away from these men? Besides the fact that a sex change is not a do-it-yourself operation, it is worth noting that their breakdowns almost all came from a change in their financial condition. For some, their self-worth was so tied to the image of being successful and rich, they couldn't live with themselves when that was taken away.

Livermore should have known how fickle fortunes were, but he had no other purpose than to make money – take that away, and he had nothing. So, while money is important and making it is a great thing, pinning your entire self-worth on it is a sure way to end up unhappy. As for Hughes, who died wealthy but weird, we just have to marvel at what he accomplished - whether it was because of or in spite of the unusual bends in his mind.

Catch up on your financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: Who Is The Next Buffett?

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