Feb

16

 Probably forever, roughly every week, Barron's has an article about a few big cap stocks that they say are pretty good bargains. What's different about the articles over the past year or two though is that they seem really compelling. That's true even now, after a big market rally.

This week's article is about drug stocks. Typical of the stocks they mention is Abbott, listed with a p/e of 10 on 2011 earnings and a 3.9% yield. All of them–Bristol Myers, Lily, Medtronic, Merck, and Pfizer–have similar numbers, yields higher than the 10-year treasury and P/Es around 10 give or take. They also list some European firms, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Roche, and Sanofi-Aventis, that look even cheaper. E.g. AstraZeneca is at a P/E of 7.3 and yields 5.2%.

The point of the article is that some of the firms could help shareholders if they would do some restructurings, spin-offs, break-ups, but what struck me instead is that they are look surprisingly cheap as they are. Seems to me that a lot would have to go wrong for these to do poorly compared to bonds over the next 10 years.

Vince Fulco writes: 

That has been David Einhorn's contention for some time at least on PFE. I.E. the bad stuff is already well known.

Bill Humbert writes:

I suspect this situation of high dividends will continue for some time, but the causes are not being dealt with. The system, by which I mean the internal processes used in drug discovery, is broken.

All that is being done is shuffling managers in and out. Each old set of managers floats off on their golden parachutes. The new managers talk and talk but do not make real changes to return the system back to the productive way research used to be done. The industry will slowly decline, have more M&A, and golden parachutes, until eventually the internal research organizations are disbanded.

PFE is already chopping internal research hard. The big pharmas are turning into development and marketing organizations and will shed research completely. Once they all do that, it will be fascinating to see where they will get molecules to develop.

The biotechs are hurting bad. More than a few went under, and many of the remaining ones have had their research organizations corrupted by the amazingly stupid management practices of big pharma. Lots of big pharma people went to the biotechs and wrecked them, too.

Check this out. Some data on the drug industry:

Figure A: # new drugs by year

NME = new molecular entity (new drug, although its structure could be closely related to that of an existing drug, i.e., a me-too drug)

The industry is about half as productive as it was 10-15 years ago.

Figure B:

Pfizer R&D spend

"You can see that Pfizer's R&D spending has nearly tripled since the year 2000, but that cumulative NME line doesn't seem to be bending much. And, as Munos points out, two (and now three) productive research organizations have been taken out along the way to produce these results. It is not, as they say, a pretty picture."
 

Alston Mabry writes: 

As long as it's the weekend and we're kicking around stock ideas…consider TEVA: They will get huge new opportunities from the blockbuster drugs coming off patent, and they've been growing revs and earnings like crazy. They play well to the "rising cost of healthcare" theme, and they are global. You're buying growth, though, not dividend.

Dan Grossman writes: 

1. The Barron's article makes no sense. If a company is about to lose half its earnings because the patent on its most profitable drug is about to expire, how does it help to sell off products or a division where earnings are not expiring?

2. Teva is in much the same position as Big Pharma. While known as a seller of generics, more than 30% of its earnings come from its non-generic multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone, which will soon face generic competition itself resulting in disappearance of these profits. Only Teva has been a lot less honest about this than Big Pharma.

John Tierney writes:

….The problem is that they have failed to deliver any important new and important blockbuster drugs for years.

Right on the money. Some blame, though, must be placed on the FDA. This story from the NYT elaborates:

Medical device industry executives and investors are complaining vociferously these days that the industry's competitive edge in the United States and overseas is being jeopardized by a heightened regulatory scrutiny.

The F.D.A., they and others say, appears to be reacting to criticism that its approvals for some products had been lax, leading to a spate of recalls of some unsafe medical devices, like implanted defibrillators and hip replacements.

Device companies have been seeking early approval in Europe for years because it is easier. In Europe, a device must be shown to be safe, while in the United States it must also be shown to be effective in treating a disease or condition. And European approvals are handled by third parties, not a powerful central agency like the F.D.A.

This article follows another that the Times published (which I can't find at the moment) last week revealing that the two drugs most commonly used for surgical anesthesia are both made only in Switzerland. The drugs are no longer being made available since Arizona, running short of the primary drug, bought some from an independent supplier, and subsequently used it in an execution– a big EU no-no. As a result, Novartis, with no control over their customer's distribution, is refusing to sell any more in the states.

The article concludes by noting that venture capital spending on the medical device industry in the US dropped 37%. Yet billions and billions are sitting on the sidelines ready to pounce on the next techno-dweeb with a social networking idea. 

John Tierney adds: 

The study, covering 2004 through 2010, found the overall success rate for drugs moving from early stage Phase I clinical trials to FDA approval is about one in 10, down from one in five to one in six seen in reports involving earlier year.

Roger Longman comments: 

Guess I sort of agree.

But issue is that while downside isn't huge, the likelihood of some price decline is possible while near-term upside unattractive since tied so closely to successful product launches. BI is only company with really great recent news (launch of Pradaxa, which will likely be a blockbuster) — but BI is private. Bayer/J&J got great news on recent competitor drug — but launch some time away and by then BI will have sewed up most of the new prescribers. Novo could do well, given extremely successful launch of Victoza — but success probably priced into the stock. NVS has Gilenya (innovative small-molecule MS drug) but reports are that it's had a troubled launch because hadn't solved the neurologists' problems with cardiac monitoring when starting the therapy.

He's right that people could buy them for the dividends but I'd wonder if the potential downsides in the stocks might not negate the effects. Stuff can and will go wrong. Merck, for example, has lost a significant chunk of the future value of SGP acquisition thanks to poor launches of Bridion and Saphris, disadvantages of boceprevir vs. Vertex's telaprevir, and — the cause of its most recent stock problem — failure of vorapaxor (most important drug in SGP pipeline).
 


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