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Pimco shifts focus to capital preservation, likes Aussie bonds

The headquarters of investment firm PIMCO is shown in this photo taken in Newport Beach, California January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Lori Shepler/Files

By Vidya Ranganathan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Bond fund manager Pimco has turned to Australian government bonds and short-term Japanese government debt as it looks not only for yield, but to protect its capital in an uncertain global fixed-income environment.

The U.S. fixed-income house, which until recently managed the world's largest bond fund, has cut the duration of its portfolio by half in the past year, sought assets across geographies, and gone for bonds that will prove resilient if economic conditions deteriorate.

Duration is the weighted-average maturity of a bond after taking into account all its cash flows.

Michael Thompson, Pimco's Singapore-based executive vice-president, told Reuters that Pimco's Income Fund (PONPX.O) invested in Australian bonds for their appealing yields - despite the risk posed by the currency.

"You get the high quality, the room for appreciation and the yield," Thompson said.

California-based Pimco, full name Pacific Investment Management Co, had assets $9.4 billion under management in the Income Fund at end-April.

Pimco Total Return Fund (PRFAX.O) , which was launched by legendary fund manager Bill Gross, lost its title as the world's biggest bond mutual fund last month following two years of sustained withdrawals. It had assets of $107.3 billion at the end of May. Gross left Pimco last year.

Pimco believes that it pays to take on some interest rate risk in the current low-yielding but uncertain environment, in which global markets are on tenterhooks waiting for the U.S. Federal Reserve to start raising its rates. Meanwhile, major central banks such as those of the euro zone, China and Japan are still pursuing their own unique forms of quantitative policy easing.

"When expectations are for increases in interest rates to be moderate and well-telegraphed and there is broad agreement about what the forward curve should be, then you want to have low rather than no duration in your portfolio," said Thompson.

Conservative investors would normally avoid duration risk by going for shorter tenor bonds in a rising rate environment, but that strategy also implies lower returns.

Pimco recommends holding a moderate amount of duration risk, given there is fair amount of consensus about the trajectory for yields. Current duration on its Income Fund is 2.4 years.

Emerging markets comprise 35 percent of Pimco Income Fund , with another 27 percent allocated to the mortgage sector.

Pimco product manager Paul Reisz said the fund was also holding short-duration Japanese government bills which, though low-yielding, offered a good return when swapped into dollars.

"When you hedge them back to the U.S. dollar, you can pick up an additional 20 to 40 basis points," said Reisz.

The best opportunities for interest income, such as mortgage backed securities or lower-rated bonds issued by banks, were outside Asia. Yet the bond fund is positive on Asian corporate debt because yields in that asset class have been less compressed during the past few years of quantitative easing.

Pimco is however selective in India and Indonesia because bonds there have mostly priced in the optimism over growth and reforms promised by new governments.

It is underweight Thailand and Malaysia's local debt, believing neither market adequately compensates investors for the risks they face from low oil prices and sagging growth momentum.

(Editing by Eric Meijer)