Should you get out of the Pimco Total Return Fund?

Gail MarksJarvis
Chicago Tribune

If you have a 401(k), there's a good chance you have money in the Pimco fund, because it's been one of the darlings of the fund industry. The fund's longtime manager and founder, Bill Gross, has been a rock star among mutual fund managers, with his every word followed in the media and people throwing billions of savings into the fund in the hope of benefiting from a genius.

But Gross left Pimco last month, causing investors to wonder if that meant they should be bailing out, too.

Without Gross, the fund lacks the king who commanded so much adoration, the star who originally was the reason so many people invested in the fund even though Gross' performance has slipped since 2011.

It's always a red flag in mutual fund investing when a longtime fund manager leaves, regardless of whether the manager is a rock star or a more average investor.

The reason: A fund's performance is merely a reflection of the man or woman who's doing the investing. If someone new arrives, investors have no clear idea if they can expect the fund to act like it has or if it will take on a new identity — maybe performing better, maybe worse, than in the past.

Everyone who manages a mutual fund has a different style. In the case of the Pimco Total Return Fund, analysts have a lot of respect for the three new managers who have taken over for Gross. Those managers, Mark Kiesel, Scott Mather and Mihir Worah, along with Pimco's new chief investment officer, Daniel Ivascyn, had provided recommendations to Gross. That means their perspectives played a role in your fund.

Some analysts say that's reason to stick with the new fund team to see what they do. Yet others note that while the team is savvy, they aren't Gross.

One potential risk now is that so many people have been unnerved by the unexpected exodus of Gross that they have been bailing out of the fund since Sept. 26. If the exodus goes on, it could mean that the new fund managers face a complex task.

When individuals or large institutions like pension funds leave a fund in droves, fund managers must have cash available to hand over to investors yanking their money. That can mean that rather than investing as they normally would to build gains in the fund, the fund managers have to sell bonds or other securities in the fund quickly, so they can come up with the cash they need.

"Challenges posed by the outflows from the fund remain a wild card," Morningstar said in a report on the Pimco Total Return Fund issued just after Gross' departure.

Fund managers with a lot of cash don't have to struggle to raise cash, and at the end of June, Pimco Total Return seemed to have loads of cash. But the fund's most recent report, from the end of August, indicates no cash.

Yet, Morningstar notes that the type of investing done in the bond fund still leaves a lot of opportunity to sell bonds easily and raise cash with ease.

Still, some pension funds are pulling money from the fund now rather than waiting to see if forced selling unsettles the fund's performance.

Their focus is "the possibility that outflows could wreak havoc on the portfolio" if investors yank tens of billions from the fund, Morningstar said.

Many consultants, who advise pension funds, have put the Pimco fund on a watch list rather than selling it now. They will scrutinize the fund's performance and makeup of the investment portfolio in the months ahead.

They will also focus on the internal strife that reportedly led to Gross' exit.

Gross started to fall from bond king in 2011, when he made a huge move to get out of Treasury bonds and proclaimed the move publicly, calling the low rates on Treasurys "robbery." Later that year, as Treasurys gained value, Gross admitted making a mistake as his fund did worse than 86 percent of core funds tracked by Morningstar.

Since then, investors have pulled billions from Pimco. Some analysts speculate that Gross' fall from grace was behind some of the infighting that reportedly happened in the firm during the months that preceded Gross' departure and may calm, now that Gross has moved to the Janus funds.