(Reuters) - Bill Gross’s sudden departure from Pimco and the Total Return Fund he ran for 27 years was the last straw for Jim Phillips, president of Retirement Resources, a Peabody, Massachusetts-based firm that advises 401(k) plans with $50 million to $100 million in assets. He’s advising clients to head for the exits.
After 16 straight months of outflows and a 3.49 percent return over the past year, worse than 75 percent of its peers, the $222 billion Total Return Fund PMBIX.O is failing Phillip’s standards when it comes to meeting the retirement needs of his customers.
“We do not have ongoing confidence in the way the fund is being managed,” Phillips said. “We are recommending to clients that we replace this fund with another one.”
Philips said he joined a conference call Monday with Pimco chief executive Doug Hodge and some of the company’s portfolio managers, but said the conversation “doesn’t change any actions that we have planned.”
About 27,000 of the largest corporate 401(k) plans in the country had money in the Total Return Fund as of the end of 2012, according to the most recent data from BrightScope, which ranks retirement plans. The roster includes Wal-Mart’s $18 billion plan, the largest in the country by assets, as well as Raytheon’s and Verizon‘s.
Total Return holds $88.3 billion of the $3 trillion in 401(k) assets listed in BrightScope’s database of more than 50,000 of the largest plans, the biggest mutual fund in the database.
Wal-Mart didn’t return calls and Raytheon and Verizon declined to comment for this article.
Phillips isn’t alone in his dissatisfaction with the fund – investors have pulled $25 billion from Total Return Fund so far this year. But a bad year that began with a public falling out between Gross and top deputy Mohamed El-Erian in January and has now seen the Pimco co-founder quit is causing many 401(k) plan consultants and advisers to put the Total Return Fund on their watch lists, and in some cases start replacing it.
Though companies usually make decisions about where to invest their retirement funds during investment committee meetings, which typically occur quarterly, Gross’ exit could prompt companies to have meetings or calls sooner than scheduled, said Martin Schmidt of H2Solutions, a Wheaton, Illinois-based consultant for 401(k) plans with assets from $150 million to $4 billion.
“I have sent out emails to clients telling them that we need to start looking at alternatives,” Schmidt said. He said he hasn’t heard from anyone at Pimco.
Once an employer decides to switch a fund out of its plan, it can take three to five months to make the change and give employees the required 30-days’ notice.
Gross’s new fund, the $13 million Unconstrained Bond Fund from Janus Capital, is unlikely to be the destination for any funds that decide to jump ship on Total Return, given that it’s only been in operation since May and has produced a negative 0.95 percent return since inception, according to Morningstar.
“We have to see at least a three-year track record and we actually prefer five,” said Troy Hammond, president and chief executive officer of Pensionmark Retirement Group, a Santa Barbara, California-based adviser that serves over 2,000 small 401(k) plans across the country.
There is also the question of whether Gross will have the same level of support and resources at Janus as he did at Pimco.
“If Bill were leaving with the top 10 people from Pimco, like Jeffrey Gundlach did when he left TCW, that would be different,” said Mendel Melzer, chief investment officer for The Newport Group, a Heathrow, Florida-based consultant to institutional investors, including 401(k) plans with assets between $20 million and $1.5 billion. “But this is just Bill Gross leaving on his own and it is hard to say that the track record he accumulated at Pimco should translate into the Janus fund.”
Melzer is advising clients to see how the new Pimco team does with the Total Return Fund, which has been on Newport’s watch list since earlier this year.
“We will keep it on a very short leash,” Melzer said. “If it does not improve in the next two quarters we will look at alternatives.”
Reporting by Jessica Toonkel; editing by Linda Stern and John Pickering