Tuesday 20 February 2018

Share watch: Pharma shares likely to weather Trump storm

It cannot be denied that some pharma companies have been overly aggressive and that is where Mr Trump’s denunciation of price-gouging comes in. (Stock picture)
It cannot be denied that some pharma companies have been overly aggressive and that is where Mr Trump’s denunciation of price-gouging comes in. (Stock picture)

John Lynch

You cannot pick up a paper or open a website since Christmas without some new scare from Brexit or from the new 'golden' presence in the White House.

I'll say one thing for Donald J Trump (who gets more ubiquitous by the day), if he is going to pick a target, he won't just confine himself to small, manageable ones.

He has already told us many times how he feels about China, Nato and Mexican immigrants.

Just as I was contemplating a new year flurry into one of my favourite sectors 'big pharma', along comes The Donald with another of his big broad denunciations of the sector.

The new president declared: "It has lots of lobbies and lots of lobbyists and lots of power and very little bidding on drugs. We (the US) are the largest buyer of drugs in the world and yet we don't bid properly."

He pledged that his new regime was about to change all this and save 'billions' of dollars.

There was no sign that this declaration had big pharma cowering in a corner. The industry knows that the politics of dealing with American drug prices is perhaps a little bigger than the new president was suggesting.

Neither has it stopped me thinking about a possible investment in Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), the global pharma company that develops and sells a portfolio of products for cancer, heart disease, HIV and arthritis. It also has a long record of manufacturing in Ireland - some 50 years and more.

Today, BMS has 25,000 employees with operations in the US, Japan, India and Belgium, as well as Dublin. It is also building a state-of-the-art large-scale biologics manufacturing facility in Blanchardstown. This new facility will increase its biologics production capacity and play a central role in its global manufacturing network.

These days, the company's strategy is to focus on a strong pipeline of drugs and accelerated discovery and development by partnering with competitors.

The list of alliances is like a who's who of the pharma industry and includes Sanofi, Astra Zeneca and Eli Lilly.

The US is BMS's largest market with almost half of its total sales, helped by the launch of new drugs and higher demand. Its European business, which includes Russia and Turkey, makes up a fifth of the group's revenues. In recent years, the fall in European revenue resulted from unfavourable foreign exchange transactions and dealings with regulators demanding price reductions.

BMS products are sold through wholesalers and to a lesser extent retailers, hospitals, clinics and government agencies. Three large US wholesalers account for 50pc of group revenues. These are McKesson (Lloyds chain in Ireland) with 20pc, AmeriSource Bergen (16pc) and Cardinal Health (12pc).

It cannot be denied that some pharma companies have been overly aggressive and that is where Mr Trump's denunciation of price-gouging comes in. However, big pharma research and development spending is impressive. BMS spent almost $2bn in 2015, but less last year.

Last year, BMS put in a strong performance. Sales at $19.4bn (€17.9bn) were up 17pc on the previous year.

This comprised of sales of $17.7bn of its own products and $1.7bn from alliances. While it has lost exclusivity of some major drugs in the last few years, this was compensated for by the recent strong performance of its oncology drug Opdivo and Eliquis, a cardiovascular drug.

Interestingly, six of its drugs account for 60pc of group sales.

Net earnings also sparkled and pleased investors, jumping from $1.6bn to $4.5bn (€4.17bn).

Investors cannot have been happy to see the shares drop about a third since reaching a 10-year high of $75 in late 2016, however they have since recovered to $50 (€46.35).

They are disappointed by not seeking early approval for its lung cancer drug. However, they will be happy with a dividend increase for the seventh year in a row. Overall, in spite of The Donald's utterances, I am still positive on BMS.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit, to buy any of the shares mentioned

Irish Independent

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