California is a strange place. In Anaheim they worship at The World’s Happiest Place; in LA when the 405 Freeway is closed for a few hours they have Carmeggedon; in San Francisco they have flowers in their hair and the leading tourist attraction is an abandoned island prison. The best known empires are media (Warner Brothers, Hearst, and so on) but the “real” money is in tech and financial services and in certain zip codes they count money in billions (and occasionally trillions) of dollars; as a consequence, there are some pretty well tuned egos in these parts.
In the last week we have seen the Czars of two of the biggest leave their positions at the tops of their roosts and the differences in the manner of their departures couldn’t be more glaring. First to go was Oracle founder, CEO, President, majority shareholder Larry Ellison. His departure is the first low key thing he has ever done with no build up and with two new faces already lined up to take over the reigns of CEO in the world’s not-the-biggest-but-still-enormous technology company. The market didn’t blink – possibly through being struck dumb but the good grace of it all, possibly because the furore of the Ali Baba listing that was happening at the same time, but probably because it was just a plain sensible thing to do for a man aged 70 who is worth over $50B and who has nothing left to prove in business and who realises his company will never be the biggest in the world, a dream he had always had. A great example of a well constructed and well executed succession plan.
A little over a week later we saw the “other” sort of departure. Self proclaimed bond king, patriarch and founder of the second or third (formerly first) biggest fund manager in the world Pacific Investment Management Company (or PIMCO as it is universally known) and potentate of Newport Beach, California, 70 year old Bill Gross jumped ship from his $2T (yes, trillion) shop to the tiny Janus group, surprising not only the media and other pundits but also his fellow employees who had themselves being planning a coup, leaving PIMCO and their investors in full panic mode. His fund at PIMCO – the Total Return Fund or TRF – had long been a darling of the consultants and Gross had been one of the most sort after commentators on all things economic and market related. He has, however, been wrong about approximately everything for several years now and his TRF has underperformed both its benchmark and essentially all its peers for years as well. Oddly, support from both the consulting community and many institutional investors has remained extraordinarily high despite this. Until, that is, this year. His fellow CEO – the widely regarded and equally egotistic Mohamed El-Erian – shocked the market by leaving a few months ago due to differences in opinion which triggered concern that all was not well in Newport Beach. This exit will indubitably harm PIMCO as a business but will also threaten Gross’s place in the pantheon of the world’s greatest investors. At 70 it appears his best days are well passed and joining a small manager with the very clear brief of building up funds under advice is a huge risk. His prognostications since 2010 have almost all been not just wrong but diametrically wrong and with a much smaller bevy of researchers and analysts it is hard to see how anything good can come of this. The lesson for PIMCO, Gross, and their investors is that pinning your flag to the mast of one individual may work short term but is a recipe for long term disaster and the flood of investor funds predicted to leave are a testament to the lack of planning and short-sightedness.