NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was one of the most extraordinary meetings in the history of the bond market. Two of the biggest-ever names in fixed-income investing, Bill Gross and Jeffrey Gundlach, fierce rivals who had never previously talked, held a secret meeting over glasses of lemonade, water, and plates of crudites about whether to join forces.
In the week of Sept. 15, just before Gross shocked the investment world on Sept. 26 by storming out of Pimco, he approached Gundlach and dropped a bombshell. According to Gundlach, Gross said he was about to be fired by the firm he had helped launch more than four decades ago and had built into a $2 trillion investment powerhouse.
Gross disclosed he had been toying with quitting for some time after Pimco erupted in turmoil earlier this year when Gross' heir apparent, Mohamed El-Erian, left the firm, sparking a public falling out between the two long-time colleagues. And Gross also told Gundlach he had been in talks with another firm some six months ago. He did not say which firm it was, Gundlach said.
Reuters first reported the meeting between Gross and Gundlach, who runs DoubleLine Capital, the day of Gross' departure from Pimco for Janus Capital Group JNS.N. Gundlach has now provided Reuters with a much fuller picture of how the meeting came to pass and what they discussed over three hours on the north loggia of Gundlach's Los Angeles home.
Gross declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story or to confirm Gundlach’s account of their meeting. Representatives for Pimco, a unit of German insurer Allianz SE (ALVG.DE), and Janus, which is a much smaller player in the asset management business, declined to comment. DoubleLine has been among the firms to benefit as investors have ditched Pimco following Gross’s departure.
Gundlach said that Gross called him out of the blue.
"Bill called through the DoubleLine switchboard," said Gundlach.
Skeptical that it was really Gross, Gundlach said he "told the receptionist to take a number and then call it to verify it was not some prankster. A couple of hours later I called Bill from home."
In that initial phone conversation, Gundlach said: "Bill came out and told me: 'Pimco doesn't want me anymore.' And I said, 'That is an unbelievably stupid decision.'"
"Then he told me, 'They are going to push the button and fire me.' To which I said, "This is really distressing."
"They" were the members of Pimco's executive committee, chaired by Pimco Chief Executive Doug Hodge.
Hodge and Pimco President Jay Jacobs, through a Pimco spokesman, declined to comment for this story.
Gross' position at Pimco had grown precarious in the months since El-Erian left. The firm's flagship fund, the Pimco Total Return Fund, run by Gross personally, was underperforming and bleeding assets through redemptions. Sources have told Reuters that Gross had clashed repeatedly with Hodge and the executive committee, threatening to quit on several occasions. He finally did quit for Janus, hours before the committee was planning to dismiss him.
Gundlach said he told Gross he sympathized with him as Gundlach himself had been fired in 2009 by TCW Group, at the time owned by French bank Societe Generale SA, in a dispute over management and control of the firm’s fixed-income business.
Gross, who is 70, told Gundlach he didn't want to retire, according to Gundlach. He wanted to keep managing money, albeit less of it.
At the conclusion of their phone call, Gundlach, 54, invited Gross, who lives south of Los Angeles in Newport Beach near Pimco's headquarters, to Gundlach's home about an hour-and-a-half away.
"I did think there could be some kind of 'Dream Team' concept," Gundlach said.
Gross arrived in a chaffeur-driven car the next afternoon around 4 p.m. The two perched in Gundlach's open-air loggia with mountainside views of the Pacific Ocean and for three hours talked about their careers, Gross' travails at Pimco and the possibility of the two men - both at various times nicknamed "bond king" by the financial press - combining forces.
Gross came well-informed about Gundlach, saying that his wife, Sue Gross, had probed extensively into the younger man's history.
The results of her research were very complimentary of Gundlach’s career achievements, Gundlach said.
Gundlach told his rival that Gross had set the bar too high through years of out-performance that had allowed Gross to build the Total Return Fund into the world’s largest bond fund, which at its peak in April 2013 had nearly $293 billion in assets. The fund was now too large to manage, and unfairly even a few years of average performance was now considered a failure, Gundlach said.
"I said to Bill: 'You are running too much money.' Bill agreed, saying 'absolutely, smaller is better.'"
"It was clear that Bill had reconciled himself to the weaker performance being because of the fact that he was running too much money," Gundlach said. "There was no disagreement at all. This change he is making is a good thing for his ability to perform."
In fact, Gross had proposed to Pimco's executive committee that he manage considerably less money - roughly $40 billion to $50 billion - and that he no longer wanted to run the flagship fund, Gundlach said that Gross told him.
Instead, Hodge and Jacobs told Gross the executive committee had reached a different decision. Gross told Gundlach the committee said: "We want you to leave soon."
Word of the face-to-face meeting between Gundlach and Gross surprised the bond world. For two decades, the two had no relationship or interaction at all, even though their personas were intertwined, compared and contrasted often in the financial media and by other bond market players.
Morningstar named Gross "Fixed Income Manager of the Decade" in 2010, an award for which Gundlach was a finalist. Then in 2011, Barron's magazine anointed Gundlach as the new King of Bonds.
Gundlach, for his part, said he never considered that he and Gross had been "adversaries" though he admits the two clearly competed "to log better returns than each other."
In their meeting, Gross "mentioned the 'Bond King' thing and seemed surprised when I said I never encouraged the media on that one, which is true," Gundlach said.
Discussing their potential legacies, Gundlach said Gross spun an analogy to National Basketball Association star players Kobe Bryant and the younger LeBron James.
"I am Kobe. You are LeBron James," Gross told Gundlach. "I have five rings, you have two rings - probably going to five,” a reference to the number of NBA championships the two players have each won.
The meeting ended with no decision made about a partnership, but they agreed to stay in touch. Gundlach has made it clear that he wants to remain fully in charge at DoubleLine.
Then, a week later, Gross called Gundlach on the night before his Janus announcement. He left a voicemail message saying he was leaving Pimco for another firm.
Reporting By Jennifer Ablan; Editing by Dan Burns and Martin Howell