PIMCO in Theory and Practice

There’s been a certain amount of chatter lately over some of the comments made by Bill Gross regarding the long end of the market.  Others have discussed that; I’d like to bring up a different point.

Leaving aside the rumors that Bill Gross talks his book in order to create better entry and exit positions (many in the bond market believe it, I’m not so sure), I have criticized his (and PIMCO’s) forecasting abilities in the past.

Fortunately for PIMCO clients, Mr. Gross does not depend on his Macro forecasting to earn returns. Sitting on my desk next to me is a copy of the September/October 2005 Financial Analysts Journal. In it Mr Gross has an article, “Consistent Alpha Generation Through Structure.” That article encapsulates the core of PIMCO’s franchise. Essentially, they write unlevered out-of the money options on a variety of fixed income instruments, go short volatility through residential mortgages, and try to take advantage of the carry trade through the cheap float that their strategies generate.

So there’s a free lunch here? Well, not exactly. In a scenario where rates move very rapidly up or down, PIMCO will be hurt. But the move would have to be severe and very rapid. Even then, unlike LTCM, which had many of these same trades on but in a levered fashion, a bad year for PIMCO would ruin their track record, but most of their clients would deem the losses mild in comparison with whatever happened to the rest of the asset markets during a crisis that moved interest rates so severely.

That is the genius of Bill Gross, and I mean that sincerely. As for what he says on the tube, well, that’s just to aid marketing of the funds. He’s an entertaining guy, and on TV, those that invite you don’t care so much that you are right or wrong; they care that you say interesting things that keep the ratings up.

So, ignore Gross and McCulley on macroeconomic predictions, but their funds are generally worthy investments (leave aside for a moment that they are having a tough time this year). That said, if I’m buying an open end bond fund, I go to Vanguard. Low expenses win with bond investing, and it is a more durable advantage than advanced quantitative strategies.