Friday, May 23, 2008

Pimco’s chief piles into (agency-backed) mortgage debt

(FT) Bill Gross, the manager of the world’s biggest bond fund, has switched gears to make a big bet on mortgage debt, almost tripling his holding of it to more than 60 per cent of the fund.

Mr Gross’s $130bn Pimco Total Return fund pulled sharply ahead of rivals in the past year after the manager predicted a housing downturn and sold out of housing-related securities and corporate bonds.

The fund has returned 12.6 per cent over 12 months, beating 99 per cent of its peers, according to fund tracker Morningstar.

Mr Gross said his decision to raise exposure to mortgage debt in recent months was based on the US government’s implicit guarantee of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage agencies.

“Government policy is moving to sanctify the status of the government-sponsored agencies. It became a question of which institutions would be sheltered by the government umbrella,” he said.

So far, the bet appears to be paying off.

In the first four months of this year, the fund returned 3.8 per cent, twice the return of its benchmark index and its best start to the year in at least eight years.

Mr Gross said Pimco was buying primarily mortgage agency debt and “not the subprime garbage”.

The Total Return fund is now invested about 61 per cent in mortgage debt, compared with just over 20 per cent a year ago.

Such debt comprises 43 per cent of a benchmark for the fund, the Lehman Aggregate bond index.

Mr Gross, who is also Pimco’s co-chief investment officer, is known for his macro-economic style of investing, which has seen him take big bets on bond classes depending on where he thinks financial markets might be moving.

Mr Gross was heavily overweight US Treasury bonds in the early 2000s but is now scornful of them and the fund is using derivatives to gain from any downturn in Treasuries.

He called Treasuries “the most overvalued asset”.

“If there was a bubble, the popping has produced a counter-bubble in quality securities. The safe haven has been way overdone. Treasuries are yielding 2 to 3 per cent, there is no real return on that at all,” he said.

“This is an asset class that is held by sovereign wealth funds and central banks...but that is not any reason to follow them.”

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