Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Big Pharma’s Wanna-be’s

I’ve been blogging for awhile about the life sciences industry and things have started to get lively. Between the economy and its impact on the financial markets and the recent spate of mergers, Larry and I haven’t been lacking for blogging topics.

While following the industry and researching for my blogs, I’ve been noticing that the industry’s excess capacity is slowly merging itself away. A recent article in Barron’s described Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) as a mid-sized pharmaceutical company. This got me thinking, who’s in Big Pharma now? Don’t worry, this blog won’t become a tedious list of company names designed to fill space. (BTW, I personally use CNBC’s Pharma Watch List at
http://www.cnbc.com/id/15837675 for those of you who really enjoy lists of company names.) Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Wyeth (NYSE: WYE) are merging. So too, are Merck (NYSE: MRK) and Schering-Plough (NYSE: SGP), unless Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) have something to say about it. Roche (SWX Europe: ROG) and Genentech (NYSE: DNA) are finally getting together. Jim Cramer of CNBC was speculating about Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) and
Celera (NYSE: CRA) getting together awhile back. (I wonder if I really need to say “Jim Cramer of CNBC”. Is there anybody on the planet who doesn’t know Jim especially after Jon Stewart got finished with him the other night? But, I digress.) Hey, wait a second, this is starting to turn into one of those tedious lists I was griping about several sentences ago.

Let’s pull out two of those names, Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Laboratories and talk about them for a few minutes. They get tossed in everybody’s list of Big Pharma companies but are they really pharmaceutical companies? Yes, they do research and development, market drugs, and go cap in hand to the FDA like the Merck’s, Pfizer’s, and Lilly’s. But, what about all those other things that they do?

First, both companies have significant businesses in the medical devices sector. Definitely healthcare related. Complicated products with healthy (no pun intended) gross margins, I’ll bet. But, don’t they have similarities to drugs? Insurance companies and Medicare pay for them. Hospitals and similar healthcare providers don’t want a lot of vendors’ similar products with just different enough procedures cluttering their storage rooms and confusing their staffs. Product risk? Remember heart defribulators? I’ll bet Boston Scientific does. That one made Vioxx look a sandlot stickball game.

Next, Johnson & Johnson has a consumer products business, mostly high end goods or their own highly respected brand name products. But, many businesses are finding that highly respected brands are not as recession proof as they once were. Then, there’s what I call the Wal-mart effect. Consumer products companies have been resigning themselves to having to deal with the likes of Wal-mart and the few other remaining retail distributors in this country. Also, consumer products have competitors, names like Proctor & Gamble (NYSE: PG) and Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL) which don’t normally appear in blogs like ours.

Finally, let’s talk about management. Johnson & Johnson has Bill Weldon and Abbott has Miles White. How do they manage the complexity and challenges of such disparate businesses? How are their successors developed and chosen? Anyone of the three business lines described require long careers to master and are different enough to be fairly brutal with newcomers who dabble. Anyone who doubts this should check with Bob Nardelli, formerly of Home Depot, who now works for $1 a year at Chrysler. (I can even get a better rate than that.)

Some argue that buying shares in companies like Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Laboratories is liking buying shares in a mutual fund. I don’t buy it. Mutual funds have administration fees and not the corporate overheads that these companies have. Investors thinking of investing in the life sciences sector should be looking at either specific stocks or actual mutual funds.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

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