‘The Bond King’ Traces the Arc of a Pioneering Investor
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For decades, one of the financial world’s best-known investors and market commentators could be found not on Wall Street but in sun-drenched Newport Beach, Calif. Bill Gross, who helped found and lead the investment firm PIMCO, earned the nickname “The Bond King” for helping to revolutionize the once-sleepy world of bond investing — and earning a fortune along the way.
But behind the aw-shucks, folksy demeanor that Mr. Gross, an Ohio native, presented in public was a hard-nosed trader who fought to squeeze every dollar out of his trades and ruled Pimco with awe and fear. Mr. Gross frequently clashed with his own colleagues, notably Mohamed El-Erian, the urbane economist he helped hire to be PIMCO’s C.E.O. and co-chief of investment. Mr. El-Erian quit in 2014, and Gross was pushed out months afterward, resurfacing at a smaller rival, Janus.
Mr. Gross retired in 2019, unable to repeat the success he found at PIMCO. But he remained in the headlines, thanks to a dispute with a neighbor over his $1 million Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. During the feud, Mr. Gross blared the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” on repeat, which eventually earned him a suspended sentence for harassment last year.
All of this is vividly chronicled in “The Bond King: How One Man Made a Market, Built an Empire, and Lost It All,” by the NPR “Planet Money” host Mary Childs, a book seven years in the making and out next week. Ms. Childs spent hours talking with Gross — who self-published a memoir last week (“I’m Still Standing: Bond King Bill Gross and the PIMCO Express”) — and numerous current and former PIMCO colleagues. (Mr. El-Erian participated only via lengthy notes from his lawyer.)
DealBook spoke with Ms. Childs about tracing the arc of the pioneering investor, whose career helped shape a crucial part of finance but whose personality alienated colleagues and neighbors alike. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What were the challenges of writing about Gross?
There were a lot of different understandings of Bill. There was definitely some hero worship. There were definitely some people who viewed him as this legend, a deity almost.
The real challenge was, I thought when I started this book that it would end neatly in 2014 with his departure from PIMCO and arriving at Janus. But he just kept doing stuff. And he kept making headlines and making more news. So I had to rewrite the ending many times and just keep being like, “Oh, OK, a new one.”
What’s your response to him putting out his own book?
[Laughter.] My fact-checker checked facts with him. So he had some idea of what was in the book. And I suspect that it didn’t totally stack up in a way that pleased him.
When you first started covering Gross and PIMCO, what were your impressions of them?
I knew how influential they were. I knew that the way that my sources talked about PIMCO was indicative that this is a force to be reckoned with.
One thing I found fascinating was just how hard-nosed PIMCO and Gross were, how they fought so hard to get a little extra money from a trade and didn’t care if the people on the other side hated them for it.
So much of Wall Street and finance is predicated on relationships. But PIMCO was like, “No, we don’t owe you anything — you owe us.”
There is a story from the ’80s where a very young bond salesman, who’s a very big name in investment management now, went down to have lunch with Bill. The salesman was like, “Hey, I’d love your business.” And Bill said: “Oh, you need my business. You’re going to lose money on every trade with me. And that’s going to be good for you, because you need the information of what I’m doing.”
How much of an outlier would you say PIMCO was in terms of having that sort of attitude?
As far as I understand it, pretty far out there.
Were Bill and PIMCO more clever than the competition and counterparties?
People always tell me: “Well, he was the beneficiary of a coin flip. Somebody was going to be the best performer. He had the wind at his back for 40 years. Of course he did well.” I’m like, that’s just not it. That’s just not the full story.
How would you ultimately sum him up? What kind of person did you think he is?
I think he makes the most sense if you view his actions through game theory. If you think about him as a gambler, he’s always considering the odds; he’s figuring out how much he should bet at any given moment. And he’s a really reflective person: He was a psych major in college, and he thinks a lot about himself and his actions and his place in the world. And that makes him doubly interesting because I think he knows when he should stop himself and then he sometimes just doesn’t do it.
Some of the most gripping material were the interactions between Gross and El-Erian. Could that partnership ever have worked?
Mohamed and Bill just have such different personalities. And both of them, I think, would say this. Mohamed might say Bill can be autocratic and kind of domineering, and he wants to do what he wants to do and he might make a mess and that has to be cleaned up later. On the flip side, Bill would say about Mohamed, “You’ve just debated for hours and said nothing.”
One thing I was also struck by were all of the instances when Bill changed his mind or seemed to change his mind or ignored things, and was hard to work with by being so mercurial. Why do you think he acted like this?
A lot of these founder-led companies depend so heavily on the founder, and he or she can kind of act however they want. In this instance, PIMCO was supposed to be this big, professional company. By the end, Bill was still allowed a lot of latitude. Founders can be really rough around the edges. But after a certain point, you have to be a big professional company and get polished.
You see it at Bridgewater Associates and other places where they’re having a hard time of succession planning. A lot of what makes a founder or entrepreneur successful is a micromanage-y, perfectionist bent. And that makes learning to sit down and step away from your creation really hard.
What sort of stature would you say PIMCO has now? And how do you think Gross is regarded today, now that he’s been out of the game for a couple of years?
Gross said in one of the court hearings in the neighbor dispute that he’s trying to have a reputation to die with. And that just kind of breaks your heart. He was this big legend. But people really latched on to that neighbor story.
PIMCO has been working very hard to position themselves as a big, grown-up firm. A normal place. But every time Bill’s in the headlines, they’re like, “Oh, my God, it’s this again.”
Why do you think Bill wasn’t able to get anywhere close to duplicating PIMCO’s success at Janus?
He was starting fresh in a market that already was bumping along, not in the direction that benefits bonds. But I think the real answer is that he was trying too hard. He let emotion get the better of him, and he wanted to prove to them that he was still great.
What were you thinking when the whole neighbor situation was playing out? How do his actions reflect on the man you’ve written about and spoken to people about for years?
I think the bones of it are not entirely surprising. He is very accustomed to walking right up to the edge of the legal limit of something right and sitting down there and being like, “I’m here, if you have a problem let me know.” He was playing the music right at the legal limit. It’s not illegal to play the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song.
Some sources called it the bond “King Lear.”
PIMCO was a big winner of measures taken to protect the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. We’re at another inflection point in the market. Why is now a good time for people to pick up a book about Bill Gross?
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we made a lot of agreements in an emergency, and I think a lot of those weren’t super examined. Or maybe we couldn’t come up with a better alternative at the moment. And I do think it’s worth examining these structures and how we got there, and that enables us to think more strategically about what to do next.
You’re seeing a seismic change in the economy and in the Fed’s relationship to markets. Interest rates have had this incredibly long march lower, and that has obviously benefited the careers of people like Bill Gross. As we reimagine how our markets work, it’s worth thinking about what we like here and what we don’t.
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