Why PIMCO Total Return Retained Its Gold Rating

Viewed in the context of its competitors, you can see why PIMCO Total Return is still an elite fund

Russel Kinnel 15 April, 2014 | 10:31AM

PIMCO has been swirling in controversy these days. Since Mohamed El-Erian left the firm, there have been a number of published reports highlighting heated arguments between El-Erian and Bill Gross. Some of the over-the-top quotes from Gross have undermined faith in his leadership just as El-Erian's departure left the firm without a clear heir apparent.

The news emphasised what we've long heard from ex-employees: PIMCO is a difficult place to work, where demands are so extreme that it's very hard to have a life outside the firm. You won't last long if your fund underperforms. This investment-bank-style culture has led to a steady stream of departures, though none as big as El-Erian's.

However, the cupboard isn't bare. In fact, the firm is still the best in the business in many areas. Can anyone match PIMCO when it comes to managers, analysts and traders? Can they match the breadth of expertise in corporate bonds, mortgages, sovereign credits and derivatives?

Some can match or come close on some areas, but few are in PIMCO's league across the board. That's why we are maintaining our Morningstar Analyst Rating of Gold on PIMCO Total Return.

After hashing out the various issues facing the fund, we then turned to the ratings of other intermediate-bond funds. Looking at the Gold- and Silver-rated funds in the category, we considered where PIMCO Total Return belonged. Are other Gold- and Silver-rated funds in this category better than or equal to PIMCO Total Return? Does PIMCO Total Return belong with those Gold-rated funds, or is it a better fit with the Silvers?

Our answer was that PIMCO Total Return is still one of the best in class. We have highly-rated funds from PIMCO in a wide array of bond categories, and that speaks to the depth of talent that is brought to bear at PIMCO Total Return. Bill Gross' name may be on the fund, but in fact lots of people contribute to the fund's success. And while Gross hasn't come off well in recent interviews, he's quite adept at bringing PIMCO's resources to bear for the fund's benefit.

Work environment is an important part of investment culture and therefore relevant for fund investment decisions. But striving for investment excellence is another element of investment culture, and PIMCO certainly has that, even if it isn't the nicest place to work.

Way back in the day, I covered Mutual Series when Michael Price was there. One article called him the "meanest SOB on Wall Street." I don't know if that's true, but my conversations with him didn't lead me to think the description was on the wrong track. Yet his funds were great for shareholders. They drove a hard bargain with corporate America in order to produce great returns for investors.

On the other hand, Dick Strong at Strong Funds had a rather destructive side (chair throwing, tantrum tossing) that sometimes hurt the funds—it certainly hurt the fund company when the SEC barred him from the fund industry for life and forced him to sell the firm.

At Morningstar, we have to evaluate how a fund leader's aggression affects corporate culture, and there's plenty of evidence that PIMCO's pressure cooker has had more positives than negatives for fundholders. Should a number of key lieutenants jump ship, I'd have a different view of the culture and the appeal of its funds. In the meantime, I'd by happy sending PIMCO my money—but not my CV.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

Securities Mentioned in Article

Security NamePriceChange (%)Morningstar
Rating
PIMCO GIS Total Ret Bd E Acc27.36 USD-0.16

About Author

Russel Kinnel  is Morningstar's director of fund research. He is also the editor of Morningstar FundInvestor, a monthly newsletter dedicated to helping US investors build winning portfolios.

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