Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big Pharma’s Dividends – How Safe Are They?

Recently, several large companies, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), General Electric (NYSE: GE), and PNC (NYSE: PNC) have cut their dividends. This got me wondering, what might happen to Big Pharma’s dividends? After all, their share prices have been slammed like everyone else’s lately. (Although, admittedly, not all to the same degree.) I’ve always been suspicious that Big Pharma are not early adopters but followers. And, why not here? All that cash going out to greedy shareholders could be kept in the coffers, and, what do you do with all that cash? Why, either buy somebody else’s company or buy back your own stock. I didn’t say that this would be logical.

The Dow Jones was down about 52% from its 2007 high before its recent comeback. Buying stocks now could produce double the dividend yield from just two years ago. I’ll bet many recent purchasers of Pfizer and General Electric felt that way. But what about companies like Merck (NYSE: MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), or Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ)? Decent returns now, but what about tomorrow?

What impact will Merck’s announced takeover of Schering-Plough (NYSE: SGP) have on its future dividends? I haven’t read of any changes yet but this may only be a matter of time. The media are speculating about Johnson & Johnson making a counteroffer for Schering to preserve its interests with Remicade. What might that do to Johnson & Johnson’s longstanding, unbroken record of annual dividend increases? Or, for that matter, might they have to go back a few years?

Interestingly, after Standard & Poor’s March 12th downgrade of General Electric’s credit rating from AAA to AA+, of the five remaining U.S. companies retaining their coveted AAA rating, two are Big Pharma, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. And, Pfizer is on Standard & Poor’s watch list because of its forthcoming acquisition of Wyeth (NYSE: WYE). I’m always amused at the herd mentality exhibited by Big Pharma.

First, everybody went after blockbuster drugs followed by direct to consumer marketing (DTC). Acquisitions came along next, and, now dividend decreases may be the next fad. Lowered credit ratings are just the unintended consequences of doing this.

OK, where does this all lead, you may be asking. (If you own Big Pharma stocks, you’d better be.) Remember several themes that Larry and I have been hammering away at for awhile.

Drug pipelines are drying up. President Obama will do “something” to U.S. healthcare. (Maybe only something easy like authorizing Medicare to negotiate volume discounts on prescription medications.) Unemployment is rising and many of the newly unemployed are foregoing their COBRA plans and other medical expenses until they find new jobs. All of this means that revenues could soon begin to disappear. Cash flow contracts and, well, you get the idea.

For now, everyone’s dividends seem safe. But, so did Big Auto’s and General Electric’s shareholders.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Please contact us at We look forward to hearing from you.

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

No comments: