Bill Gross: a wave of (self-) destruction?

As even casual readers of the financial press know, Bill Gross, the bond guru, recently left PIMCO, the firm he founded, for smaller (everything is smaller than PIMCO) rival Janus.  Two aspects of his departure strike me as particularly noteworthy:

–Gross has been saying very emphatically, both at PIMCO and Janus, that he has absolutely no intention of retiring or of ceding any measure of control over his portfolios to colleagues.  This is despite an extended period of poor performance.  If he’s thinking at all about the impact of his statements on clients, he surely believes he is reassuring them.  However, it seems to me that the opposite is most likely the case.

What clients are likely hearing is that although he’s been charting a losing course for his portfolio for an extended period, he refuses to consider any changes or even to take any input from his 700+ professional colleagues. The way he’s delivering his stay-the-course message also makes him sound like an adolescent having a tantrum.  It’s hard not to connect this unusual behavior with the fact of extended underperformance, raising further issues about his temperament and his judgment.  This it’s-all-about-me attitude is very scary for anyone how has bet on Gross’s management prowess.

–PIMCO as a firm clearly made a terrible strategic mistake in making the idea of continuous outperformance by a single manager the exclusive focus of its marketing to clients for so many years.  Yes, the message is powerful and simple to understand, but one that’s also very risky and that invests a huge amount of power in a single individual.

PIMCO would probably have imagined any possible parting of the ways with Bill Gross to be somewhat akin to Derek Jeter’s final season as a Yankees.   …that is to say, a nostalgic feel-good farewell tour for a player who may be a shadow of his former self, but which validates both personal and institutional brands and generates large profits for both sides.  What PIMCO got instead was the unflattering glare of tabloid coverage of a messy divorce.

Bad for PIMCO.  But bad for Gross, too, I think.

As a client, how eager are you going to be to hitch your star to an apparently erratic 70-year-old who has weak recent performance, no longer has access to PIMCO’s extensive information network and whose assets under management are too tiny to have much clout in the brokerage community?    The default reaction of the pension consultants who advise institutions seems to be:  PIMCO without Bill Gross isn’t good enough; Bill Gross without PIMCO isn’t good enough.  It seems to me that PIMCO has a much better chance of changing consultants’ minds than Bill Gross does–it already has infrastructure, other managers with strong records and huge assets under management.

If I’m correct, absent a return to his form through the long period of interest rate declines, Mr. Gross appears to be in a much more difficult position than his former firm.  Much of this is his own doing.

 

Bill Gross, PIMCO and Janus

Bill Gross is the (until recently) extraordinarily successful  lead portfolio manager for the bond titan PIMCO, which he co-founded and which he sold to the European financial conglomerate Allianz in 2000.

Late last week, Gross abruptly resigned from PIMCO to join Janus Capital, a much smaller, equity-oriented firm with a checkered history.  The apparently hasty departure seems to have come after Gross learned he was about to be terminated.

My take:

1.  The PIMCO brand has been built on two ultimately unsound pillars:

–a customer should buy PIMCO products because they would always outperform every other alternative, and

–the brilliant portfolio manager, Bill Gross would supply the returns..

2.  The problems with this brand strategy have certainly become apparent to Allianz in recent years:

–although retail investors don’t think of age as an issue with a portfolio manager, institutions do.  They worry that once a manager reaches, say, 60–and certainly when he/she reaches 65–that the manager will soon leave, that either retirement or illness will force a change.  So for institutions a key question is who the star manager’s successor will be.  It seems to me that, despite a deep, talented bench at PIMCO, Mr. Gross never permitted a successor to be designated.

–Mr. Gross’s string of stellar performance years appears to have come to an end at around the same time interest rates reached their lows.  Since then, my cursory observation is that Gross upped the risk level of his flagship fund, in an attempt to boost returns.  The strategy hasn’t worked, but it has added another level of worry.

3.  Allianz addressed the succession issue, not by selecting a skilled insider with a strong performance record, but by bringing in marketing celebrity Mohamed El-Erian as Mr. Gross’s successor.  This was a weird choice.  Yes, Mr. El-Erian had once been a PIMCO employee   …but he had limited portfolio experience and no public record of successful management.

It’s unclear to me whether Allianz did so because it didn’t know any better or whether the-appearance-of-a-successor-without-there-actually-being-one was all Gross would accept.  The idea may have been that El-Erian would take over many of Gross’s marketing duties, leaving him more time to concentrate on his portfolio.

4.  Mr. El-Erian resigned from PIMCO early this year.  It’s unclear why, although I can imagine several reasons:

–he was unsatisfied with his role as spokesmodel for PIMCO,

–he realized he would be held to blame for PIMCO’s continuing underperformance, even though he had no power to influence it, and

–Allianz came to understand–perhaps with help from PIMCO’s senior investment staff–that Mr. El-Erian was not a particularly good pick to become PIMCO’s lead portfolio manager.  It’s interesting to note that Mr. El-Erian, although still on the Allianz payroll, plays no role in the post-Gross restructuring.

5.  My guess is that the leadership transition at PIMCO has been completed with the appointment of a skilled veteran PM to lead PIMCO, and that the outcome is a lot better than it could have been.  It remains to be seen whether Mr. Gross can reestablish his performance record at Janus.