PIMCO Does Active ETFs Right

by Aaron Levitt | May 24, 2013 6:30 am

PIMCO Does Active ETFs Right

Despite being called the way of the future, the actively managed exchange-traded fund industry (so far) has fallen a bit flat. High expenses, poor returns and a lack of transparency have plagued many funds in the space, and recently, closures of actively managed funds have recently begun to pick up.[1]

That is, unless you’re Pacific Investment Management — more commonly known as PIMCO.

Managed by “Bond King” Bill Gross, the PIMCO Total Return ETF (BOND[2]) has racked up an impressive $5.2 billion in its roughly 15 months since inception, and the fund has outperformed many other broad bond index ETFs during that time. Now, following a similar formula that brought BOND success, PIMCO has recently finished the necessary paperwork and received regulatory approval to bring three more active ETFs to market[3].

Frankly, I have no doubt that these three funds will make just as much of an impact on portfolios as BOND did.

A Mirror Image, But Better

The key to PIMCO’s overall success has been the strength of its fund managers, and BOND is no exception. The ETF basically is a version of Bill Gross’ massive $280 Billion PIMCO Total Return Mutual Fund (PTTAX[4]), with the same stated objectives and goals (but minus the high expense ratio and potential sales loads[5]).

However, the ETF’s smaller size has made it the top performer since debuting.

From its February 2012 inception through the beginning of May, BOND returned a cumulative 14.2% — much better than the 8.5% gain for the mutual fund. Much of that difference in returns has to do with the fund sizes. Even with $5 billion-plus in assets, the number of holdings is relatively small. BOND currently has 1,046 holdings[6], compared to the approximately 19,000 holdings in the Total Return mutual fund.

Basically, the smaller fund size has enabled Gross to be more nimble and cherry-pick the best opportunities in the bond space. It’s much easier to move in and out of positions — which BOND and PTTAX do, as they are “total return”-style investments — when your position size is smaller. PTTAX has around $113 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds, for goodness sake. Try exiting that completely at the drop of a hat.

All in all, that size difference has made a significant impact on returns. Which brings us to the three new ETFs.

Three Popular Funds

Just as it did with BOND, PIMCO is launching ETF versions of three different popular mutual funds within its lineup, also co-managed by Gross. Like BOND, each new ETF will mirror the strategy of an existing mutual fund that bears a similar name:

Also similar to Total Return, these three mutual funds are all quite large. Both PRTNX and PTLAX have roughly $25 billion in assets each, while PDVAX clocks in around $8 billion. Their smaller ETF sizes should help Gross — along with co-managers Curtis Mewbourne on Diversified Income, Marc Seidner on Low Duration and Mihir Worah on Real Return — post great results.

Already, each fund is a standout in its respective Morningstar category, with top quartile rankings over the long haul. The funds also are pretty timely investor choices, as they are all well-positioned for the eventual rise in interest rates as well as potential higher inflation. Based on their open-end mutual fund counterparts, we can expect that …

While no official launch date has been given, I expect these three ETFs will go live pretty soon, then quickly catch on with investors. PIMCO seems to have found the successful recipe for launching sustainable actively managed ETFs.

It will be interesting to see whether other big name fund managers — like Fidelity or T. Rowe Price (TROW[11]) — follow Gross’s lead.

As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Endnotes:
  1. have recently begun to pick up.: http://investorplace.com/2013/05/ishares-etf-closure-the-first-of-many/
  2. BOND: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=BOND
  3. to bring three more active ETFs to market: http://FollowingasimilarformulathatbroughtBONDsuccess,PIMCOhasrecentlyfinishedthenecessarypaperworkandreceivedregulatoryapprovaltobringthreemoreactiveETFstomarket.Frankly,IhavenodoubtthatthesethreefundswillmakejustasmuchofanimpactonportfoliosasBONDdid.(L2)
  4. PTTAX: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=PTTAX
  5. high expense ratio and potential sales loads: http://investorplace.com/2013/05/4-lessons-from-4-crummy-mutual-funds/
  6. BOND currently has 1,046 holdings: http://www.pimcoetfs.com/Funds/Pages/BOND.aspx?WT.svl=nav&http://investments.pimco.com/Products/pages/346.aspx
  7. PRTNX: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=PRTNX
  8. PTLAX: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=PTLAX
  9. PDVAX: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=PDVAX
  10. ILB: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=ILB
  11. TROW: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=TROW

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