Missing A Sense of Perspective

When I read the headline that Adolf Merckle, a German industrialist, had committed suicide over recent financial losses, I wasn’t too surprised: after all, accounts of businessmen jumping to their deaths after the 1929 stock market crash are legendary. When I read the early report, though, I thought there had to be more to the story.

The original story I saw highlighted Mr. Merckle’s $9.2 billion fortune and losses that were reportedly in the “hundreds of millions.” It seemed almost impossible to me that someone would choose suicide over losses that amounted to less than a tenth of their wealth.

And, as I suspected, there was more to the story. According to this Bloomberg report, “Merckle, 74, spent December negotiating with banks he owed about 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to save the family empire he built over four decades.”

So he was struggling with the potential loss of over 70% of his personal fortune. That’s a lot, no doubt, and quite a shock to the system, but it still would have left him with a cool $2 billion or more. That’s a quite different position from folks who start off with fewer zeroes and end up with next to nothing.

Maybe my perspective is skewed because I don’t have a lot of zeroes behind my personal fortune. (In fact, like many people, my personal fortune is effectively nil, since most of what I have is largely owned not by me, but by the bank that holds the note on my house.) And maybe there’s still more to this story, more than will ever come out. But it’s a cautionary tale, and a warning that we should maintain a sense of perspective that emphasizes what we still have, rather than what we’ve lost.

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