Monday, November 10, 2014

PIMCO: A Tale of Many Woes

Long-time rivals of Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) have been tight-lipped all year about the ugly divorce that played out publicly between PIMCO founder Bill Gross and his presumed heir apparent Mohamed El-Erian.  These rivals have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of client money fleeing the firm.  The departure of these two highlights PIMCO’s succession planning failure.  Since their feud became public, the firm has had customer withdrawals totaling hundreds of billions.  Industry experts expect PIMCO undoubtedly will face further redemptions that may further unsettle staff and investors.  What went wrong?

Unresolved tensions between Gross and El-Erian are similar to conflicts encountered by founders and successors throughout the business world, and the escalation of their tensions followed a rather predictable path.  That path was described by sociologist Friedrich Glas as “becoming more entrenched in their positions, forming coalitions, then taking more public action, such as the bickering reported in financial periodicals.” 

These types of outcomes are common among firms that give short shrift to succession planning.  A successful firm attracts top talent, with that new talent expecting the opportunity to succeed its founder.  This talent may come with significant accomplishments of its own and may be or seem impatient to gain control of a company that took the founder significant time to build.  The firm is the founder’s identity, making it difficult for the founder to give up control.  Even as El-Erian left PIMCO, Gross sent out a tweet stating, “I’m ready to go for another 40 years!”  While the tweet may have been sent to instill a sense of confidence to the firm, it may also be perceived as a sign that the founder could not let go of control.

With both Gross and El-Erian gone, PIMCO’s new leadership will undoubtedly lead to a changed corporate culture.  Pension funds, endowments, foundations and consultants will keep a close eye on the new leadership and new culture, and they will look for any prolonged reductions and outflows in firm assets under management.  This turmoil will most assuredly affect portfolio returns.  In addition, when one or more executives leave a firm without the proper preparation, clients frequently withdraw assets.  Investment firms need to ensure that the future leadership is not only capable and has the confidence of clients, but also has been involved in establishing the future direction of the firm and its investment process.

Lesson Learned: Firms should plan ahead because nothing about succession planning is easy.

Michael D. Cathey, CFA
Consulting Principal
NexTier Companies, LLC

DISCLOSURE AND REDEMPTION: Attention to Compliance Details Not Optional

At a recent conference, I ran into a long-time mentor and friend, Marx Cazenave, the founder of Progress Investment Management, LLC (Progress).  He, among others, has coached me on life and the investment management business.  He also reminded me of the power of disclosure and redemption.  We are all a product of our experiences, both good and bad.  This conversation also led to some reflection on NexTier’s core values, one of which is Integrity: “We are committed to operating at the highest ethical standards with uncompromising honesty, transparency and selflessness toward our clients.”  What does this mean?

Consistent with that core value, here is my story and a source of my passion for protocol, process and accountability.  In 1996, I founded Trias Capital Management, LLC (Trias), as a fixed income advisor for institutional investors and ultimately grew it to nearly $2 billion in assets under management.  The firm was one the first of a breed of Emerging Managers.  In 1998, I acquired a money market mutual fund called Millennium Income Trust.  In 2003 as part of a routine exam, the SEC found me in technical violation of three different rules under the Investment Advisers Act and the Investment Company Act.  Importantly, no fraud was involved and no investor lost money, either principal or interest.

The first violation pertained to Millennium Income Trust where I failed to ensure that Trias repaid a receivable owed to the fund in a timely manner.  The receivable was less than $80,000.  The second violation related to the purchase by Trias of callable government agency securities that were ineligible under rule 2a-7 of the Investment Company Act.  The final violation stated that I failed to ensure that Trias kept accurate books and records stemming from carrying an investment in another investment management firm and the incorrect stating of a liability.  In essence, Trias was a small business without an appropriate investment in compliance resources prior to the dedicated chief compliance officer requirement.  We were an Emerging Manager that was not paying close enough attention to processes and procedures.  The resulting penalties by the SEC included a $25,000 civil penalty, a six month suspension from working with an investment advisor and a 12 month suspension from working with an investment company.  All three stipulations have long since been satisfied and I take sole responsibility for the actions of my firm and for the violations that were committed.

This ordeal is why I am adamant and have recommended to my clients, do not cut corners or operate on the cheap.  Compliance requires a level of rigor that cannot be compromised.  I want my clients to learn from my mistake, as I have learned from it.  Investment managers, especially Emerging Managers, must raise their level of operational efficiency to a place that is beyond reproach and adds value to their business.  Anything less will leave your firm vulnerable to regulatory action.  While difficult, this experience has made me a better investment management consultant.

Lesson learned: Attention to compliance is not optional, it is imperative.

James A, Casselberry, Jr.
Senior Managing Director
NexTier Companies, LLC