He is the man who made bond investing sort of sexy - and now he may pay the price.
Over more than three decades, Bill Gross, co-founder of asset-management giant PIMCO, has made so much money for clients that he has become the barometer by which other bond traders are judged. His West Coast perch, prescient calls on the U.S. economy and devotion to yoga only added to the mystique.
But the very recipe that enabled Gross to dominate his industry may now be conspiring against him.
He's coming off his worst year in the business after making a huge bet against U.S. Treasuries that backfired. Last year, for the first time in nearly two decades, investors pulled more money out of PIMCO's flagship fund than they put in.
More troubling, U.S. regulators are now considering whether PIMCO should be deemed a "systemically important financial institution" - that is, too big to fail, and thus subject to tighter regulatory oversight. The concern: The juggernaut manages so much money for pension funds that it could hammer the economy if it ever went under. The firm has doubled in size to $1.36 trillion in assets since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
The firm is lobbying hard to fend off the "systemically important" designation, according to regulatory disclosures. Like other financial firms, it also objects to impending rules that could make some of its derivatives trading more costly.
Industry analysts also wonder whether PIMCO's $250 billion Total Return Fund, the world's largest bond fund, is such a behemoth that Gross sometimes has to swing for the fences to generate the kind of returns investors have come to expect. Because PIMCO's flagship fund relies heavily on derivatives to bet on bonds, some analysts say it's unnecessarily complex and potentially at risk should one of its trading parties fail.
Gross dismisses concerns about PIMCO's girth. He says the firms isn't "levered," or making bets with borrowed money, in the way that failed players like Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers did. The asset manager is using only client money to trade.
"It's not like we are a deposit institution and there'd necessarily be a run on the bank because they thought the bank was going to fail," Gross said in an interview. "'Too big to fail' is dependent upon tens of thousands of clients" abandoning ship at once, and it's "hard to believe they'd want out at the same time."
The debate over PIMCO's centrality to the financial establishment is a turnabout: Up until the financial crisis, the 67-year-old Gross was largely seen on Wall Street as a West Coast outsider and a bit of a loner.
He holed up most of the time at Pacific Investment Management Company's headquarters in Newport Beach, California, which in September celebrated its 40th anniversary. Gross was a bond geek with a California twist - there was the yoga thing, and weekly TV appearances on business shows where he predicted the movements of bonds and the economy.
But during the crisis, scared investors piled into his funds. Policymakers from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department turned to PIMCO to help with a raft of programs meant to rescue the financial system. That helped forge closer ties between the firm and the government and raised PIMCO's profile even more with investors.
"The concentration of bond-market assets in a few firms, which some could argue to be systematically risky, is not of those firms' design, but rather stems from their success," says Joshua Rosner, managing director of Graham Fisher & Co., an adviser to institutional investors.
Life After Gross
Also bubbling up at PIMCO is a topic that few there want to discuss: Life after Bill. It's a quandary that has faced other legendary money managers who have built a firm from the ground up but must eventually find a way to let someone else steer the ship.
Some say PIMCO will be a much different place once Mohamed El-Erian, the firm's co-chief investment officer, succeeds Gross, as most expect he eventually will. Some former PIMCO traders say the firm will lose some of its edge without Gross, given that El-Erian, a former International Monetary Fund official, is more prone to wonkish discussion than hardball trading.
"If Mohamed took over, it would be the IMF and a lot of think-tank mentality," says John Brynjolfsson, who was PIMCO's lead expert on commodities and inflation-linked bonds before founding a hedge fund, Armored Wolf, three years ago.
El-Erian dismisses thoughts that PIMCO is becoming staid. Gross is responding to the firm's bigger scale by diversifying away from simply bonds and into stock funds, hedge funds and exchange-traded funds. Gross is in no hurry to leave, he adds.
"Bill's not going anywhere," says El-Erian, 53, in an interview at PIMCO's offices. "I often joke that he will outlast me. I would be considerably worse off, in every single way, if Bill wasn't here." (El-Erian writes a monthly column for Reuters.)
All these challenges come as many in the investing world question how much value money managers really add. Some of the best-known investors, including hedge-fund legend John Paulson, had poor returns in 2011, spurring talk that it's getting harder for stars to generate "alpha," or outsize returns.
There is now a slew of low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds that often deliver performance superior to managed funds. To some degree, Gross himself is bending to the new reality. On March 1, PIMCO is launching an exchange-traded fund that seeks to offer a cheaper alternative to buying shares in the Total Return Fund.
A Really Shrewd Call
Gross cemented his reputation as the Bond King with his famous prediction in 2005 that the subprime mortgage crisis would imperil all financial markets and major economies.
His call about subprime helped rocket his Total Return Fund to new heights. In 2007, the fund returned over 9 percent, ranking him No. 1 in his peer category. Equally important, the fund returned 4.82 percent in 2008 while most of its competitors' funds were down an average of 4.69 percent at the height of the financial crisis, according to Morningstar. In 2008 and 2009 alone, the Total Return Fund attracted over $65 billion in net inflows as investors fled falling equity and real-estate markets.
The 2007-2009 period may be remembered as Gross's peak. It's also when Gross, a man who doesn't like to travel much or schmooze with peers, began to shift from outsider to establishment figure, as a trusted advisor to federal policymakers.