The history : Last week, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co. in Newport Beach, California, compared long-term returns from equities to a “Ponzi scheme” and said returns of 6.6 percent above inflation, known as the Siegel Constant, won’t be seen again. “The cult of equity is dead,” Gross, 68, said in an Aug. 2 interview with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television
The dismissal of a long-held belief among stock pickers highlights the challenge Pimco faces in building an equities business while aligning its managers with an economic philosophy outlined by bond king Gross that predicts diminished returns across asset classes. Since starting its first equity strategy in 2010, Pimco has gathered $3.2 billion in the four main stock funds, less than 1 percent of the firm’s $1.8 trillion, held back by investor aversion to equity funds and subpar performance. The firm’s four main stock funds are trailing a majority of rivals this year.
Neel Kashkari, the former head of the U.S. government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program who was hired in December 2009 and oversees Pimco’s global equities, said Gross’s comments are consistent with Pimco’s outlook for stocks in a “new normal” environment of below-average economic growth.
“This makes it even more important to invest globally and actively select the companies best-positioned to deliver attractive returns,” Kashkari, 39, said in an e-mail.
Pimco’s first two equity strategies, EqS Pathfinder Fund (PATHX) and EqS Emerging Markets Fund, account for about $2.6 billion of the firm’s stock assets. Neither is beating its benchmark index in 2012, and both lagged behind at least 62 percent of peers as of Aug. 2, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
EqS Emerging Markets Fund, which began in March 2011, and Pimco’s third equity strategy, EqS Dividend Fund, which started in December, have attracted less than $900 million in combined assets. Gross’s Total Return Exchange-Traded Fund (BOND), an ETF variation on his flagship fixed-income mutual fund, has soared to $2.4 billion in assets since it was started five months ago.
Pimco first experimented with stocks in the mid-1980s, a foray that was short-lived when the equity managers quit after about two years. Lessons from that time, when bond traders would shoot down equity managers’ bullish arguments for stocks during strategy meetings, led Gross to try to give the equities team more freedom, he told Bloomberg Markets magazine in its August 2010 issue.
“Those sessions basically said, ‘Hey, we’re a bond shop. This is what we’re going to do. It’s the party line,’” Gross said in the 2010 interview. “If I’ve been a problem, then I can be the solution in terms of allowing equity investments to grow and prosper.”
Another effort was set up in 1999 by Pimco’s then-parent company, which created an equity unit separate from the bond business to take advantage of the Pimco name. Five years later the unit was one of several fund companies accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of allowing a hedge fund to engage in market timing, a practice of making short-term trades to exploit market inefficiencies, and was dissolved after paying fines and repayments to settle the lawsuits. It didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing.
Pimco’s latest stock effort came as Gross anticipated an end to the 30-year bond rally, which helped fuel Pimco’s growth since Gross co-founded the firm in 1971. The prediction was undermined as Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis sent investors to the perceived safety of bonds and out of stocks. Stock funds have seen client withdrawals in every year since 2008.
“No one should be surprised that Pimco equity funds are a stepchild,” said Joshua Brown, vice president of investment for New York-based Fusion Analytics Investment Partners LLC, which has part of its $300 million under management in Pimco bond funds. “What they have against them is distaste for open-end mutual funds, dislike for equities and the fact that it’s a bond shop in everyone’s mind.”
Anne Gudefin and Charles Lahr, former Franklin Resources Inc. (BEN) managers, were brought in to oversee the first stock fund, EqS Pathfinder. The $2.13 billion fund’s managers follow a deep- value strategy of picking stocks they consider to be cheaper than they’re worth. In the 12 months through Aug. 2, it declined 0.2 percent, putting it ahead of 66 percent of similarly managed funds, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. This year the fund returned 4.1 percent, trailing 62 percent of peers.
The Pathfinder fund follows a more conservative strategy and tends to hold more cash so it hasn’t benefited as much from this year’s stock rally, said Karin Anderson, a senior mutual- fund analyst for Morningstar Inc. (MORN) The MSCI ACWI Index of global stocks is up 6.2 percent and the U.S. benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen 11 percent this year through Aug. 3.
Gross’s Total Return Fund returned 7.6 percent this year through Aug. 2 and the ETF version gained about 8.3 percent since it started trading in March. Pimco’s bond funds on average outperformed 59 percent of peers this year through June 30, according to data compiled by Chicago-based Morningstar.
Conclusion : More Time
The firm opened a fourth equity strategy in April, Pimco EqS Long/Short Fund, which lets clients participate in long-term stock ownership while seeking to limit losses when markets turn bearish by holding cash or selectively betting against securities. The strategy is run by Geoffrey Johnson, who joined Pimco in April from Catamount Capital Management LLC, and uses the same investment process as a hedge fund Johnson oversaw since 2003.
“It’s going to take more time to see what these managers can do with these tools at their disposal,” said Anderson of Morningstar. “It could be a hindrance if they’re constantly trying to think about this macro view and force stocks in and out based on it.”