A person usually looks up as he climbs a ladder to figure out how much more has to be done to reach the top. The problem with Rajat Gupta is that he seems to have used this principle even when climbing the social ladder, comparing himself with the thousands of people above him rather than the millions below.
The former McKinsey chief has been accused of insider trading in one of the most high-profile cases against financial fiddles launched in the US. His stunning fall from grace is a lesson in the culture of greed. Why would someone as rich and successful as Gupta—with an estimated net worth of $100 million—blow it all away for quick bucks?
Taped conversations involving hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam suggest that many within his circle believed Gupta was eager to graduate from being a millionaire to being a billionaire. “My analysis of the situation is he’s enamoured with Kravis, and I think he wants to be in that circle. That’s a billionaire circle, right? Goldman is like the hundreds of millions circle, right? And I think here he sees the opportunity to make $100 million over the next five years, or 10 years, without doing a lot of work,” Rajaratnam reportedly says in one conversation about Gupta, explaining why he wants to join private equity firm KKR. Kravis is Henry Kravis, one of the founders of KKR.
Since a landmark paper by Richard Easterlin in 1974, many contemporary economists have noticed that the link between money and personal contentment can be weak, especially in richer societies that have been able to meet the basic needs of all citizens. Getting richer does not necessarily make a person happier. A lot depends on the frame of reference. A study published in 2008 by economists Andrew Clark, Paul Frijters and Michael Shields shows that happiness is most closely associated with the income of an individual relative to the income of those he is most closely associated with.
The details of the Gupta case suggest that he suffered from what some have called billionaire envy—the discontent of a mere multimillionaire. He started mixing with deal makers who made many multiples of what a consultant, even one of the most successful ones in the world, made. “He wanted a billionaire’s life and the question for him was how could he become a billionaire in a short time,” management guru Bala Balachandran told Bloombergearlier this year.
Intelligence took Gupta to the top of his profession. Envy has brought him crashing down.
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