Why Don’t Business Leaders Assassinate Competitors?

Billions of dollars are at stake in the global market, and cutthroat competition often crosses the line into illegality. Corporate espionage is commonplace.

But why stop at stealing your competitor’s ideas? It’s relatively easy to hire an assassin, and research shows that the death of a CEO can cause marked decline in profits. So, the Overcoming Bias blog asks a good question: Why don’t more business leaders have each other assassinated?

Is it for the same reason that international custom expressly prohibits political assassinations?

Nikhil Dhingra

It could be possibly due to the fact that in this era of cut throat competition your businesses competitor's idea combined with your own can possibly result in an awesome business plan and can ultimately become a dark horse in this business race .

It's the activity of your closest competitor that can motivate you to go that extra mile and become more hard working than you are at present.


For the same reason drug dealers avoid shooting up someone else's neighborhood? It was covered by Levitt's first TED speech, I don't recall if it was also mentioned in Freakonomics. (probably)


I think that the real reason is that killing CEOs or other high profile persons is really really hard. Finding someone to do it for you must be even harder, especially if you are a well-known CEO yourself. How would you even find a professional killer? It's not like you can just put out an ad on craigslist. And as a well-known CEO you cant hang around some seedy underground bars all the time - the 100 hour week wont allow it.


While CEOs may or may not be responcible for their company's success, there is no evidence that I know of that one company's success is really the cause of another company's problems. The cause is usually the product or the marketing or the customers. Killing a competing CEO entails at least some risk of criminal sanction but offers no real likelyhood of improved performance. A new CEO would take over, but his company's product or marketing or the customers' preference would remain. So, it is more sensible to attack the product, improve your marketing or try something new on the customers. (Companies have killed their customers from time to time, but they inveitably tell the jury it was an accident. Thinking asbestos and tobacco here.)


To be devil's advocate, the premise of the question might not actually be valid. Perhaps CEOs (and other key players) actually ARE assassinated, but they just are really good at it and so they don't get caught and make it appear to be a natural/accidental/self-inflicted death/public shaming/incapacitation.

Or one could also look at it with a paranoid slant -- if they aren't being assassinated, then that must be because there's no real competition because it's all ultimately owned by the same entity. That it, Microsoft and Apple merely "put on airs" about competing as they are both owned/controlled by the Bavarian Illuminati (or insert your favorite world-controlling entity here).


The reason it doesn't happen is people in the US don't really think about it. Given the huge number of factors that go into the success or failure of a business, the removal of the CEO won't have much impact in most companies.

The fixation on the CEO shows a willful ignorance about how a business actually operates. For the vast majority of companies in the US, the executive team is more important in many ways than the CEO. The CEO may set the direction, but he doesn't necessarily steer the ship.

In many other parts of the world (and in some US businesses) the CEO is the linchpin of the organization. For those CEOs, I'm sure they're aware of the issues.

unstable equilibrium

I'd thought about this for a while, and am not convinced by any resolutions that I've heard from my friends

I like to think about the related issue of why hitmen don't just finance themselves by shorting the stocks of companies whose officers they would hit (or go long on companies whose CEOs are incompetent, and then arrange for a "change of management").

After all, these individuals already have the relevant expertise in house, while most firms would either have to diversify or outsource the work to such a specialized firm, anyway.


Funny how nobody included the "Godfather" in this analysis -- American business at the extreme. The CEOs (Dons) are eliminated when necessary -- whether it is for power, money or both. Modern day CEOs are not as ruthless as the Corleones and thus the risk of getting caught (legal system/morality) is a big factor. Remember that classic scene when Michael killed his rivals while his son was baptized -- he renounced Satan even though he simultaneously had other mafia members assassinated.


The problem is that it would be difficult for an entire board of directors or 'company' itself to all go along with an assasination. (high risk of a whistle blower exposing the company). If it were instigated by an individual (CEO say), the rewards for the assasination are not that great: They are already paid handsomely enough as it is and yet would bear all the costs of being caught personally.

whereas, I imagine most corporate espionage is performed with the consent of the company directors as a whole, or most of them, and the costs would be shared by the company (by way of copyright/patent penalties).

Punditus Maximus

Class solidarity. If you look at CEOs (who serve on one another's boards, etc.) as a class of persons who are playing a cooperative-competitive game, where they in general conspire to rent seek and occasionally defect to successfully run a company, the system in general makes a lot more sense.

Sandi Mays

#3 made me laugh!

For public companies, when one stock in a sector drops the others are likely to also take a short term hit. If CEO's are being murdered, this could easily cause a sell off.

A security company CEO might see huge benefit by killing a few random CEO's. Think of the money companies would spend on security if they thought their leaders were in danger.

I worked at a company where the CEO received a death threat. The company then spent a ton of money outfitting the executive offices with bullet proof glass and armed guards.

Sean Barrett

I really need a concise summary of the paper before drawing conclusions, but here's a few things that turned out from searching it (I didn't actually even skim it):

"larger estimated effects are found for own CEO deaths (Column IV), then for child and spouse deaths (Column V) and finally for parents and parents-in-law (Column VI"

Now, correlation is not causation, but the paper is being assumed to show causation. We can probably strongly argue that child and parent deaths are probably likely to be causative of the declines. However, it is less clear for "own" CEO deaths (and hence possibly for spouse deaths) that correlation connects to causation. If a CEO knows that a company is looking at a downward trend, this could affect the CEO's health, both indirectly and directly: searches for "suicide" turn up no hits at all in the paper, so they presumably didn't control for it and we have no idea how much of the effect, if any, it causes.

Of course none of this really matters for assassination-decision-making, since what matters is the perception of the potential assassin-hiree, not the reality determined by academics (until that becomes the public perception).

As to how significant the effect is, "Industry-adjusted

operating returns on assets (OROA) falls by 0.9 percentage points using a two-year window

around managerial deaths. This decline is equivalent to an 11 percent decline in OROA.". I guess an 11% decline just isn't worth it. That's not going to translate into vastly more market share for your own company or anything.



Murder is harder than it looks, but the effect achieved by killing a business rival is very limited.

CEOs are replaceable, if one company goes out of business because of murder, another competitor will surely emerge soon.

Hiring an assassin is not easy - more money do not necessarily buy higher qualification. There is asymmetrical information - if a guy is a known killer, he is not very good; and if he is good there is no way to tell if he has any experience.


I'd echo JB's thoughts (#38).

Everyone here seems so cynical... You don't even have to stretch so far as to call CEOs decent people.

You just have to accept that they feel queasy about killing people, which for most of us is sufficient (although by no means the only) incentive not to do it.


I've finished college in Russia in late 90's. During one of the economics classes lecturer seriously made a statement that nowadays it is unspoken law of not to give lend money or invest into other party's business. Because when it is time to pay back it is easier and cheaper and to hire an assasin and get creditor killed then actually pay the debt.

In my opinion in this country infrastructure of law enforcement evolved to an extent when such behavior is extremely risky. Some information will be unveiled because there is always powerful enough group for whom releasing the infromation is advantageous.


I was thinking about this while pursuing a career in trading at one of the exchanges in Chicago. Much like drug dealers, there is a large supply of people wanting to "make it to the top" causing the wage of a trading assistant to plummet ($350/week). The success rate is very low. Drug dealers tend to murder each other to eliminate competition but also to get 'street credit' and reputation. (Sounds like Freakonomics?). So I guess in order to get a good trading position, I need to knock off all the other college graduates?


They do assassinate eachother. But they're usually in the mafia, not on wall street.


CEOs are pretty much replaceable - the link between CEO and company performance is fairly weak.

There is little likelihood that even if one competitor is weakened, that this would benefit another. After all, perfect competition assumes many price-taking firms with low barriers to entry. Another firm would just take its place.

Big Cost, little benefit.


Because causing pain is so much more enjoyable than eliminating it altogether.


I imagine that CEO's rationalize white collar crime by thinking everyone does it. Everyone knows that CEO assasinations aren't happening all the time.