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The Most Powerless Powerful Man on Wall Street

Pandit made gestures toward the trappings of Wall Street success, buying a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, next to former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld and sending his children, Maya and Rahul, to Trinity School on West 91st Street (Pandit eventually joined its board of trustees). In most ways, however, Pandit remained a cultural outsider: While he paid dues to the exclusive Country Club of Purchase, part of Morgan Stanley’s unofficial social agenda for managing directors, a friend says Pandit never actually saw the inside of the club. His parents lived with him for part of the year in his Manhattan apartment, and Pandit drove the extended family around in a minivan. A fellow executive who once saw him at a movie theater was shocked to see Pandit out of his usual C-suite suit and tie, wearing an oversize anorak, stonewashed jeans, and white sneakers. He looked like “a nerd in the computer faculty,” says the onlooker.

Pandit was of two worlds, and the subtle cultural bias at Morgan Stanley didn’t make it easy to fit in. His wife, Swati, was frequently invited to Morgan Stanley events in which wives were expected to appear, but she never did. “Nobody has seen her at one work function,” says a former colleague at Morgan Stanley. Her absence didn’t help with the perception among some at Morgan that Pandit had a bias against women. A female executive who once worked for Pandit says he was uncomfortable having women in anything other than supporting roles. In 1998, one of Pandit’s female underlings filed a legal complaint against Morgan Stanley that resulted in a $54 million sex-discrimination settlement.

Pandit also took heat over his alliance with an Indian equities trader named Guru Ramakrishnan. Pandit and Ramakrishnan had come from the same Brahmin caste in India and had both gone to Columbia before seeking their fortunes on Wall Street. But that’s where the similarities ended. Ramakrishnan was outwardly confident and even arrogant—he once bragged that an astrologer told him he was going to be the head of sales and trading at Lehman Brothers. Many at Morgan considered him unpleasant and prickly. When he lost money, he had a habit of insisting “why he was right and the market was wrong,” says a person who worked with him. Some suspect that Pandit abided Ramakrishnan because he was a useful henchman for the conflict-averse president. “When Vikram wanted to browbeat somebody, he didn’t want to do it himself. He’d send Guru to do it,” says another former Morgan Stanley executive. It also didn’t hurt that Ramakrishnan was worshipful of Pandit: He once cried when he thought he would be unable to fulfill an order Pandit gave him. “Guru was very well protected by Vikram,” says a former colleague. Non-Indians at the company privately referred to Pandit and Ramakrishnan, along with two other Indian executives, as the “Indian Mafia.”

In 2001, John Mack, Morgan Stanley’s charismatic CEO, was edged out by Phil Purcell, the Dean Witter CEO who had merged his company with Morgan. Pandit was not bothered by the change at the top. Former colleagues say he told a group of people that it wasn’t a big loss because Mack wasn’t that smart. (Pandit denies saying this.)

In principle, Pandit and Purcell were aligned on the crucial subject of how much risk to take—neither was entirely comfortable with excessive leverage. By contrast, Zoe Cruz, the president of the fixed-income division, felt the credit markets were ripe for bigger bets and more leverage—and she was bringing in more money than Pandit. Pandit and Cruz jousted for influence with the CEO.

Meanwhile, in 2005, eight veteran former Morgan Stanley executives, known as the Group of Eight, made a run at Purcell’s power, co-opting disgruntled senior executives—including Pandit’s No. 2, Havens—to plot against him. To recruit Pandit, the G8 dangled before him the CEO job at Morgan Stanley—if Purcell was driven out, Pandit would eventually take over. It was a risky move: There was no guarantee that the coup would work. But when Purcell asked Pandit for his loyalty, Pandit refused, betting his chips on Havens and the G8. “He does not like conflict and does everything to avoid it,” says a person involved in the Morgan Stanley battle. “But this was an irreconcilable conflict and he acceded to Havens as he almost always does.”

Given Pandit’s coy style, Purcell was shocked when he learned Pandit had turned against him. “I don’t understand. Vikram was my guy,” he told a friend. “I saved his job three times.” When he learned of the betrayal, Purcell promoted Cruz, ousting Havens and Pandit.

On his way out, Havens walked through the trading floor to standing ovations, but Pandit left the building alone, taking only his raincoat into a cold March drizzle. “It was the most upsetting thing that ever happened to him,” says a friend and former colleague. Morgan Stanley, says another, “was his soul, his identity—home.”