Addiction On Wall Street

Finance continues to be haunted by drug addiction, compulsions, and eating disorders.  Here’s why.


To this day, Marc Weill’s cocaine-abetted flameout from high atop his father’s Citigroup empire remains the cautionary tale of Wall Street’s intractable drug habit. At 44-years-old, Weill commanded a $113 billion investment portfolio of stocks, bonds and other assets that his father, Sandy (who had pretty much formed Citi with raw talent and cojones), had handed to him. Marc had been the obedient son and tireless worker, pulling 12-hour days and all-nighters. He earned $2 million a year and sat on the bank’s 19-member management committee.

But by the summer of 2000, the younger Weill’s colleagues started noticing a pattern of erratic behavior at business get-togethers. He dozed off during meetings—some of which his father oversaw. He started missing days and was hospitalized twice within four months, suffering pneumonia. When he showed up back at work, co-workers noticed his fingertips were stained brown. They voiced their worries, which led to an investigation. By July, Marc Weill announced he was taking a leave of absence due to exhaustion—that old celebrity stand-by. A few months later, the Wall Street Journal was reporting on the real reason for his disappearance: a cocaine addiction that had taken over his life and beached his career on a sand bar.

Weill wasn’t the first or the last Wall Streeter to deal with the pressures of high finance through the performance-enhancing highs of cocaine or with plenty of other stimulants. Just six years earlier, one of the Street’s best-known, self-made stars, Wardell Lazard, the head of his own investment firm, died naked and alone in a Pittsburgh hotel from an overdose of vodka and cocaine, just two weeks before his 45th birthday. At the time, it shocked nearly the entire industry because his drug use had apparently been so secret.

Aside from such headline-making tragedies and ruined lives, Wall Street’s drug use is a lot like Wall Street itself: very insider, very hush-hush, and usually very high-end, until of course it isn’t anymore. No one has bothered—or been allowed—to study the problem up close or over an extended period, and the little we mortals hear about it usually comes in the form of the occasional drug bust. But now, a remarkable 10-year-long study has peeled back the glass partitions on the Street and confirmed the worst fears about drug abuse in the cathedrals of high finance. A University of Southern California researcher, who was once herself a Wall Street banker, followed more than two dozen freshly minted MBA’s from the boot camps, or “grind mills,” of investment banks as they clawed their way toward wealth and absolute power. By the fourth year in business, they had succumbed to a litany of out-of-control behavior.

While popular culture teems with images of the coke-snorting Wall Street hot shot, the reality these days is as grim as a Florida pill mill. Like millions in society’s addicted class, hedgies are hooked on prescription pain killers.

“People working 120 hours a week, for prolonged periods of time, go through harsh psychological transformations,” says Alexandra Michel, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, who findings appear in the currentAdministrative Science Quarterly.

The stress of grueling workdays and juggling other people’s billions turned the body “antagonistic,” says Michel, bringing on compulsive drinking, drugging and depression. “What people really want is to feel alive and to feel some energy course through their bodies,” says Michel, an anthropologist who shadowed her subjects in their cubicles and personal lives. “When the body shuts down, substance abuse is an attempt to feel alive.”

Michel hadn’t set out to study Wall Street’s addictions. Her research examines how organizations influence white-collar workers’ psychological processes and performance. She is particularly interested in the way knowledge-based workers—not just on Wall Street, but in the media, law, consulting, technology and countless other fields—perceive themselves as autonomous, but in fact they are under unspoken organizational control.

That control is veiled by the perks offered to white collar workers. “The bank erased distinctions between work and leisure by providing administrative support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, encouraging leisure at work, and providing free amenities, including childcare, valets, car service, and meals,” Michel writes. “Some of the banks’ embodied controls focused on managing employees’ energy and included providing free caffeine and meals during ‘‘energy slumps,’’ hiring young people, focusing on energy as the main hiring criterion, and firing low performers because of their energy drain.”

As they became overtaxed, 80 percent of Michel’s workers said they were struggling to control their bodies. As one vice president put it: “I wouldn’t call it control; I am at war with my body.” They were also at war with their private lives. Michel saw highly educated and highly motivated people willing to miss a child’s birthday or cancel on parents visiting from overseas to instead help with a client’s hostile corporate takeover.

To cope, bankers developed addictions and compulsions, such as eating disorders, as well as embarrassing tics, such as nail biting, nose picking and hair twirling. Normally mild-mannered people flew into out-of-control rages at the least provocation. As one bank associate in Michel’s study recalled of an embarrassing episode on the street: “I stormed toward the taxi, but the door was locked. The driver wanted to unlock it but couldn’t because I kept operating the handle. I became so furious that I kept banging against the windows like crazy, swearing at the poor guy. And then I turned around and saw that a managing director was watching with his mouth open. I was so ashamed.”

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