Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


The Lunch

The obsessive life of bond guru Bill Gross Add to ...

One Sunday evening last year, Bill Gross was settling down in front of the television to watch some football when his wife's cellphone rang.

"I've had a beer and a half - that's as far as I go - but I'm feeling good," he recalled earlier this month. His wife, Sue, picked up the phone and said, "It's for you, sweetheart - somebody by the name of Tim Geithner."

One of the world's legendary investors, Mr. Gross doesn't have a cellphone. So when the U.S. Treasury Secretary needed to reach him, the call was routed to his wife. "We chatted for 30 minutes in my inebriated state about what to do about the U.S. economy," he says with an impish smile.

The story is Mr. Gross's way of illustrating his political naivety, but it also says something about the role he occupies in finance, and especially the world of bonds. Mr. Gross is responsible for over $1-trillion of other people's money, which they have handed over in large part because of his reputation, stretching back decades, for turning it into more money.

He is constantly sought out for his views, which at times represent market-shifting news. His statements might be considered oracular if there weren't so many of them. He believes that investors should face up to a "new normal," a world of feeble economic growth where returns on stocks and bonds are stubbornly low.

At 66 years old, Mr. Gross is at a point in his career where most people are easing up on work, but slowing down doesn't appeal to him. Trading is one of the ways he expresses what he cheerfully describes as his "obsessive" personality.

We're sitting in a very small conference room at his firm, Pacific Investment Management Co., better known as Pimco. On the table are two sandwiches in clear plastic containers - tuna for him, ham-and-cheese for me - and bottles of water. Out the window is Newport Beach, and beyond it, the Pacific Ocean.

His lanky frame folded into a chair, Mr. Gross looks slightly rumpled. A sky-blue tie is draped slackly around his neck. His routine is unvarying: he rises at 4:30 a.m. and is in the office an hour later, before the trading day begins on the East Coast. At 8:30 a.m., he heads across the street to a Marriott hotel to exercise and practice yoga.

It was during a yoga session several years ago that Mr. Gross had the idea to dispatch analysts to cities across the country to pose as homebuyers. They brought back street-level intelligence which confirmed Mr. Gross's hunch that the boom was out of hand. Pimco decided to avoid the world of subprime mortgages.

"You get endorphins, you get free space, and all of a sudden simple little ideas just pop into your head," Mr. Gross says. "It seemed sort of heretical at the time, especially coming over and saying, 'The 10 of you, go there.'"

For a titan of finance, Mr. Gross doesn't hew to type. There's the yoga, the lack of a cellphone, the fact that he majored in psychology and once aspired to be a rock star. A man of enormous ambition, he is prone to loud bursts of laughter at his own expense.

Mr. Gross is extremely wealthy, with a net worth of $2.1-billion (U.S.), according to Forbes magazine. Yet he eschews what a friend calls the "dog and pony shows" for the socially prominent in Orange County, the prosperous enclave south of Los Angeles where he lives and works. His idea of a good evening usually involves a quiet dinner with his wife. He adores his iPad and devours novels (thumbs up: Philip Roth, thumbs down: Jonathan Franzen).

Lately, he has been trying to loosen up a bit in the office, where he prefers to focus, in silence, for hours in front of his trading screens. To break the quiet he helps impose, the morning we meet he starts a new ritual: at 8 a.m., a song that someone recommends is blasted over the sound system. Mr. Gross kicks it off with Short Skirt/Long Jacket by the alt-rock band Cake. He even helps lead a conga line past rows of stunned-looking traders.

To hear Mr. Gross tell it, he has spent his life channelling his more compulsive tendencies. He once ran more than 120 miles over six days, from San Francisco to Carmel, not stopping even when his kidney ruptured. He amassed, piece by piece, what may be the world's finest stamp collection.

His roots, it turns out, are in Canada. Mr. Gross is a first-generation American, born in Ohio to parents originally from Winnipeg. His mother's family farmed wheat in Manitoba; his father, an executive with a steel company, played hockey.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular