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The Most Powerless Powerful Man on Wall Street

Pandit and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 1976.  

“There were probably only five or six people who really understood the balance sheets and the trading positions,” says Barton Biggs, a former colleague at Morgan who now runs Traxis Partners. “And none of those people were members of the executive committee. Vikram did understand it and could explain it.”

He was consistently prescient on sophisticated trends in financial theory. “He was talking about fat-tailed risks fifteen years ago,” says a former colleague from Morgan, referring to the concept eventually popularized in Chris Anderson’s 2007 book, The Long Tail. Others described Pandit’s uncanny ability to “see around corners,” predicting, for instance, the rise of hedge funds in the late nineties.

Pandit may have been Morgan Stanley’s resident genius, but he was nobody’s idea of a natural-born leader. He lacked charisma, detested glad-handing, avoided confrontation, and generally struck people as awkward and uncomfortable. The guy who seemed to have everything he didn’t, Pandit couldn’t have helped but notice, was John Havens.

Born to wealth and married to an heiress of the Doubleday book-publishing fortune, Havens hunted birds, played golf, smoked cigars, and knew his way around private clubs and charity dinners. His unusual looks—he was hairless owing to the rare skin disease alopecia universalis—were offset by his flashy ties, suspenders, and meticulous tailoring, “a walking advertisement for a bespoke clothing store,” according to one of his former colleagues at Morgan. His status among the elite members of the firm, old-line executives like Anson Beard and Parker Gilbert, was high. He played the part to the hilt, carrying himself with a martial bearing and once standing on a desk in the trading floor and exulting: “I bleed Morgan Stanley blue!”

Havens and Pandit had an unlikely but natural affinity. As a sales trader in the equity division, Havens sold clients the complex securities Pandit crafted. When Pandit came up with a new investment instrument, Havens wasn’t afraid to say “this is a shitty product you’re coming up with,” says a mutual colleague of the men. “[Pandit] came to appreciate Havens’s abilities not only to sell things but to help with the creation of the product.”

But Havens wasn’t just a business partner; he was also a kind of social prosthetic for Pandit. In exchange, Havens found Pandit’s brainpower useful in attaining higher corporate ground. By the late nineties, they had risen through the ranks of the equity division. When Neal Garonzik, the head of equities, left in 1997, both were up for the job. “There are two kinds of generals,” says Beard. “Some generals who can fire up the troops and take any hill, and some generals who sit in a tent and figure out which hill. Vikram is a terrific strategist. John is a leader.” In this instance, the strategist won out. Pandit was named Garonzik’s replacement, and Havens became Pandit’s No. 2. “I know John was disappointed, but he never let it affect his relationship,” says a colleague of the two men. “In fact, it grew stronger.”

His closest friends describe Pandit as quietly backing into power, too meek to grab for it directly, never ambitious in the pejorative sense of the word. To them, Wall Street was a meritocracy and the best and brightest mind, however passive and un-Gekkolike, had simply risen to the top in an orderly and natural fashion. After all, for every hard-charging trader who broke phones and kicked in doors, you needed a Vikram Pandit who could hedge against overzealousness. “Many people wanted to see him get his chance in the sun,” says Paul Kimball, a former Morgan colleague.

But with his newfound power came critics and rivals who saw Pandit’s dry, quiet ways as hubris and political cunning rather than shyness and humility. When he became president of investment banking at Morgan Stanley in 2000, “that’s when he said, ‘I am a king,’ ” says a former Morgan executive who is critical of Pandit.

Pandit was exceedingly cautious in his leadership role, always looking for ways to make money with a minimum of risk. When hedge funds came along, his idea was not to invest directly but to sell brokerage services to them. He would often avoid acting on a problem until he felt he’d perceived every possible risk involved—and the delays would frustrate his subordinates (“analysis paralysis,” they called it). He rarely expressed strong opinions in meetings, instead chiming in with a single Socratic question. “A lot of people were a little afraid of him,” recounts one former colleague. “He was so smart, and they didn’t want to look dumb.”

While Pandit observed and listened, Havens would execute Pandit’s strategies while another close aide, an outgoing and socially connected marketing man named Don Callahan, would sound out underlings and keep tabs on political machinations. To critics, it seemed that Pandit was merely trying to avoid risk to his career. “His attitude was all about, ‘I am not going to do anything, decide anything, that’s going to get in the way of an upwardly mobile career trajectory,’ ” says one of his Morgan Stanley antagonists. But his critics couldn’t deny the power of his intellect, and his superiors were beguiled by it.