MONEY funds

Fleeing Bill Gross is for the Birds

Recent fund outflows, and the hit to the bond king’s reputation, don’t make a compelling case to bolt Pimco Total Return.

This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of MONEY

If you’ve been following the soap opera at Pimco, you know the narrative that’s emerged: Bond king Bill Gross is a bully whose megalomania drove out his former co-CEO, and now shareholders are following Mohamed El-Erian out the door.

Investors have yanked nearly $60 billion out of Total Return PIMCO FDS PAC INVT TOTAL RETURN A PTTAX -0.184% so far. Even Paul McCulley’s recent return to Pimco as the firm’s chief economist wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding.

Some in the pundit class say it’s time to join the exodus. Here’s why this story line and its conclusion are wrong.

1. These outflows aren’t about personality.

Gross may or may not be a jerk (I can’t say), but the reason money is leaving Total Return isn’t the manager’s spat with former heir apparent El-Erian. Cash started exiting long before that became known.

Gross has simply underperformed in the past year because of ill-timed moves in and out of the Treasury market. “The numbers are the real story,” says Manhattan Beach, Calif., financial planner Phillip Cook.

2. You don’t need a saint’s reputation to trade securities.

“Wall Street is filled with temperamental chefs, but many of them do a fine job managing money,” says planner Lewis Altfest.

About three years ago tales of bad behavior emerged from the messy divorce between bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach and his company TCW. In the end Gundlach started his own firm, and his flagship fund has beaten 96% of its peers since.

3. Neither Gross’s slump nor the outflows are reasons to panic.

Michael Herbst, Morningstar’s director of active funds research, says red flags go up when a fund loses 10% to 15% of its assets. Total Return has lost closer to 20%, but Herbst says, “We don’t believe the outflows are damaging the fund.”

That’s because Gross’s still-gigantic $230 billion portfolio invests in high-quality, intermediate-term bonds that tend to be easy to sell, so the sales themselves don’t depress prices. “If this were a high-yield or emerging-market debt fund, that might be a different story,” Herbst says. Meanwhile, Gross has still beaten more than half of his peers in five of the past seven years, and nearly 90% over 10.

Morningstar cut Pimco’s stewardship grade citing uncertainty surrounding the firm’s leadership and high fees on its retail funds. Yet Morningstar reaffirmed Total Return’s gold rating.

The Take-Away

If you invest in Gross’s talents through Harbor Bond HARBOR FUND BOND FD HABDX -0.3239% — a sister fund that is a third as cheap as Total Return’s C-class shares and is on our ­MONEY 50 list of recommended funds — there’s even less reason to sell.

In fact, owners of Total Return should use Harbor for new investments. Lower expenses add a margin of safety, and why pay retail when you don’t have to?

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