the SEC is investigating PIMCO’s pricing of its Total Return (BOND) ETF

Another day, another PIMCO problem.

The Wall Street Journal reports the SEC is investigating whether the bond fund giant used its clout with brokers to get them to steer favorable investments to its Pimco Total Return (ticker = BOND) ETF, artificially inflating its performance in its early days.

I suspect the issue is a little more complicated than that.

background

We all know, or should know, that Wall Street likes to erase its mutual fund mistakes.  Underperforming managers get fired.  An investment management company’s week-record funds get disappeared by being merged into better performing ones, keeping the assets in house but eliminating the ugly track record.

When I entered the business, investment firms routinely used other practices, now considered unethical/illegal.

For example:

–many investment management companies used “incubator” funds, that is, they would create a bunch of mutual funds, seed them with small amounts of money and run them in-house–but not offered for sale to outsiders.  After a year or two, those with strong records were opened to the public and supported by marketing campaigns touting their sterling performance.  The laggards were simply shut down.  Fidelity Magellan, for instance, was originally one of these.  The practice is now illegal.

–big investment firms would also sometimes give a new or weak-performing fund a boost by allocating to them a disproportionately large amount of the “hot” IPO flow it, as a big commission generator, would get from brokerage houses.

I knew of a fund manager (brokers and traders love to gossip) from another organization who ran a mid-sized fund and had decided to go out on his own.  He persuaded the brokers he dealt with to feed him with large IPO allocations for several months.–in return, presumably, for future favors when he hit it big.  His performance skyrocketed–and he got Schwab to tout the fund he subsequently created.  Without constant shots of IPO adrenaline, his performance was never the same, hwever–and he was finally undone in an asset mispricing scandal during a severe market downturn.

The practice of selective IPO allocation within asset management firms was generally abandoned in the 1990s.  I’m not 100% sure why, although I can’t believe regulatory pressure wasn’t the main factor.  Hair-splitting:  I’m not sure the practice itself was the problem or the fact that fund management companies didn’t disclose what they were doing.

the PIMCO case

According to the WSJ, the issue here revolves around “odd lots” (meaning small amounts, or tag ends) of some thinly traded bonds.  They’re regarded as more of a nuisance than anything else–like you or me having 0.36 shares of a stock–and trade at a discount because of this.

PIMCO’s trading desk apparently let its brokers know that it was interested in buying any odd lots they might be able to find.  These were then funneled into BOND.

Since the junk bond collapse of the late 1980s, the daily pricing of bond funds has been handled by third parties, not by the investment management companies themselves.  The outside pricing services apparently don’t distinguish between odd and round lots.   So at the end of the day on which an odd lot was bought for, let’s say 98, it would be priced at, say, 100 or 101.

Bam!  …a “magic” jolt to performance.

That’s even though the odd lot could only be resold for 98 or so.

Pretty clever.

However, the trick can only move the needle for a small fund.  The extra returns the move appears to generate can’t be sustained as the fund grows.  So performance numbers achieved in this way are arguably deceptive.  They don’t really represent the kind of performance holders should expect as time goes on.

what’s wrong with doing this?

I can think of two possible SEC concerns, assuming the WSJ has the facts right about PIMCO’s conduct:

–that PIMCO didn’t disclose that is was using odd lots  to exploit a quirk in the ETF’s pricing rules and thereby boost returns

–all investment management firms have trading compliance rules that determine how buys and sells get distributed among the many pools of money it is managing.  PIMCO may have overridden its own rules if it diverted to BOND all/most (?) of the odd lots it bought.

why?  or what sparked SEC interest?

On the second point, what was  apparently going on would be immediately evident to any bond portfolio manager who looked at BOND’s SEC filings.  I presume a rival complained.  Or course, it may be that a disgruntled broker or trader notified the regulator.

In any event, this odd lot activity was bound to be noticed, and fairly quickly.

Why would anyone risk professional embarrassment or regulatory sanctions?   I have no idea.

 

 

 

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