the shakeup at Pimco

Pimco shakeup

Last week bond management giant Pimco announced a number of high-level promotions.  But the biggest headline was the resignation of its well-known market commentator Mohamed El-Erian.  Mr. El-Erian, who will remain a consultant to Pimco’s parent, the German insurance company Allianz, had been touted as the heir to Bill Gross (who is Pimco’s version of Warren Buffett) when he was hired back from Harvard in 2007.

Why?

foundering equity business

A small part of this is an effort to revitalize the equity business Pimco launched several years.  It hasn’t had notable success so far.  Maybe this area didn’t have the strongest leadership.  But Pimco’s main overall marketing message continues to be that bonds are a better choice than stocks.  Hard to sell a product when your own company is telling potential customers to stay away.

who succeeds Bill Gross?

The main issue, however, is Mr. Gross himself, who will be 70 years old on his next birthday.

When a star manager reaches, say 60, the first question any potential pension client (prompted by the pension consulting firm he hires) asks in a due diligence interview will invariably be “Who is your successor?”  The client, who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the search for a new manager, has two worries:  what happens if the star retires?, and what happens if the star stays on but (think: any aging sports figure) begins operating at only a fraction of his former speed?

While the manager’s performance remains stellar, this may not be a serious obstacle.  But if it begins to become merely ordinary, as seems to be the case today with Pimco, the age/successor becomes key.

That’s how I read last week’s news.  The promotion to deputy CIO of two bond managers with long practical investment experience and visible track records attributable to them says to me that clients weren’t happy with the idea of Mr. El-Erian as Mr. Gross’s successor.

Three possible reasons:

1.  Mr. El-Erian is in his mid-50s.  If Mr. Gross were to work for another five years (he’s tweeted he’s up for another 40!), then the age question recurs, only with Mr. El-Erian as the subject.  So to have a credible succession story Pimco needs forty-somethings.

2.  Mr. El-Erian’s credentials are unusual.  He’s an expert on emerging markets debt, which makes up only a tiny fraction of the total bond universe.  He worked for two years as the CIO of Harvard’s endowment, where it isn’t clear whether he had a positive or negative effect on returns.  The scanty press reports I’ve read suggest the latter.  Since his return to Pimco, Mr. El-Erian’s main role seems to have been as the public marketing face of the firm, where his professorial demeanor and/or his Pimco connection make him vary popular with financial talk show hosts.

It could be that Mr. El-Erian doesn’t have a long enough, or strong enough, identifiable track record as a portfolio manager for clients to take a chance on him.

3.  It might also be that one or more of the the forty-somethings–who have strong track records identified with them–were about to leave, either to start their own firms or to join a rival.   Their motivation to depart would be that the door to advancement was closed at Pimco by Mr. El-Erian’s presence.   If so, Pimco would have been compelled to choose between them and Mr. El-Erian.

Of course, it’s possible that…

4.  … Mr. El-Erian is leaving Pimco voluntarily.  But the lack of detail he’s providing about his future plans suggests otherwise.

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