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.

 

massive redemptions at PIMCO? …I don’t think so

Late last week, bond guru Bill Gross, founder and public face of PIMCO, resigned from that firm to go to work for a much smaller rival, Janus.  This has led to speculation that the departure of Gross, who crafted the superior long-term record of the PIMCO flagship Total Return bond fund, would cause the loss of as much as 30% of the $1.8 trillion PIMCO has under management.

I don’t think the outflows will be anywhere near this bad, for a number of reasons:

1.  PIMCO deals in load funds, meaning that retail investors must pay a fee to buy them.  Two consequences:

–owners find the fact of the fee, not necessarily the size of it, a psychological barrier to sale.

–the load-fund client typically places a sell order through his broker.  The fact he can’t just go online in the middle of the night and redeem is another barrier to sale.  When called, the financial adviser can make reasoned arguments that persuade the client to hold on.  The broker may also convince the client to move to another bond fund in the PIMCO family, so that money leaves the Total Return fund but stays in the group.

What’s to stop a broker from using the Gross departure to call all his clients and tell them to take their money from PIMCO and place it with a different family of load funds–thereby generating another commission for him/her?  Generally speaking, such churning is illegal.  The transactions might even be stopped by the broker’s own firm.  Worse yet for the broker, this kind of call is pretty transparent as a fee grab.  It might also invite questions about where the broker was when the Gross performance began to deteriorate.

2.  My experience in the equity area is that while no-load funds can lose a third of their assets to redemptions in a market downturn.  Under 5% losses have been the norm with the load funds I’ve run.  Even smaller for 401k or other retirement assets.

3.  Money has already been leaving PIMCO for some time.

–Bill Gross’s performance has been bad for an extended period.

–He’s been acting like a loose cannon.

–Mohamed El-Erian’s leaving PIMCO was particularly damaging.  I think most people recognize that Mr. El-Erian is a professional marketer, not an investor.  But he was being paid a fortune to replace Gross as the public face of PIMCO.  Why leave a sweet job like that  ..unless the inside view was frighteningly bad?

At some point, however, PIMCO will have lost all the customers who are prone to quick flight.

PIMCO will try hard to get clients to stay.  It will presumably concede that it waited much too long to rein Mr. Gross.    But, it will argue, a seasoned portfolio manager at PIMCO, Dan Ivascyn, has now taken over the Total Return fund.  Supported by the firm’s broad deep research and investment staff of more than 700 professionals, Ivascyn will stabilize performance.  So the worst is now over.  In fact, Gross’s departure may have been a blessing in disguise.

4.  Arithmetic.  About $500 million of PIMCO’s assets come from its parent, Allianz.  Presumably, none of that will leave.  Third-party assets total about $1.3 trillion.  A loss of 30% of total assets would mean a loss of over 40% of third-party assets.  That would be beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the load world/

5.  Although individuals are prone to panic, institutions act at a more measured pace.  It would certainly be difficult to persuade institutional clients to add more money now, but it should be easier to persuade them to allow the assets they now have at PIMCO to remain, while keeping the firm on a short leash.

In sum, I can see that in the wake of the Gross departure, PIMCO could easily lose 10% of the third-party assets it has today.  I think, however, that the high-end figures are being put out for shock value and without much thought.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

investors continue to withdraw funds from PIMCO

A front page article in last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal outlines the (former?) champion bond fund manager’s problems.  Over the fourteen months ending in June, a time of strong net inflows to US-based bond funds, PIMCO experienced steady net outflows totalling a whopping $64 billion.

 At the same time, the negative media attention that the article embodies is itself one of PIMCO’s bigger problems.

My, admittedly uninformed, outsider’s view:

Recent press coverage of PIMCO has focused on the succession struggle between the firm’s co-founder and Chief Investment Officer, Bill Gross, and Allianz, the German insurance company he sold his firm to in 2000.  Generally portraying Mr. Gross in an unfavorable light, it has been sparked by the surprise resignation of the successor hand-picked by Allianz, Mohamed El-Erian, in January.

Personality conflict between Mr. Gross and Mr. El-Erian may be entertaining, in a gossipy, soap opera-ish way. But I don’t think it’s the main issue.  In fact, outflows form PIMCO were smaller in the five months since Mr. El-Erian’s resignation than during the five months before.

Instead, I see two related factors involved in PIMCO’s recent struggles:

1.  The bigger problem, in my view, is that for a long time PIMCO’s marketing has been focused on the continuing ability of Mr. Gross, an industry legend, to continue to generate market-beating investment returns, as he has been able to do throughout the thirty-year+ period of falling interest rates in the US.  Because of this emphasis, Mr. Gross’s recent performance stumbles have removed the main reason for choosing PIMCO over other alternatives.  

2.  Allianz has bungled the succession issue, mostly, I would guess, because it doesn’t understand the outsized ego that comes with being an American portfolio manager.

Mr. Gross is seventy.  He’s immensely wealthy.  Clients have a concern that he will:

–suddenly decide to retire

–develop physical disabilities that will force him to do so, or, worst of all,

–remain on the job and begin to suffer age-related diminution of his investment skills.

Rightly or wrongly, this is how clients regard any successful manager after, say, age 55.  

For its part, Allianz has a similar interest in protecting the asset it owns.  So succession is a legitimate business issue.

However, rather than emphasize the large stable of successful younger portfolio managers PIMCO employs–as it has since Mr. El-Erian’s departure–and to deemphasize the role of a single key individual, Allianz decided to anoint Mr. El-Erian, a charming marketing guy with little portfolio experience as the next Bill Gross.  It then made him, however implausible, the new investment face of the franchise.

Admittedly, portfolio managers aren’t the most mature people in the world–we’re more like little kids playing video games.  Still, Mr. Gross can’t have been thrilled.  He must have felt he was being forced out at the first whiff of underperformance and that his considerable investment acumen was being trivialized by Allianz through its choice of a successor.  He may also have thought that the entrepreneurial character of “his” company was being destroyed by Allianz (forgetting that the key element in this process was his selling PIMCO to corporate “suits” at what he thought was the peak of the bond market).

I don’t have a strong feeling about how the PIMCO saga will unfold.  Will the firm continue its marketing focus on creating larger-than-life portfolio managers?  PIMCO was built on aggressive bets that interest rates would decline–is it possible it can’t adjust to a market where rates go sideways or up?  Will it remain trapped with their idea of the “new normal,” where bonds are always the asset of choice?  Will Bill Gross begin to be able to play well with others?