Saturday, July 31, 2010

Big Pharma – When Will the Music Stop?

My recent blog series on Barron’s article on Big Pharma (The article is available online only for subscribers, a short preview is available at .) got me thinking about what’s going on with Big Pharma. Looking at the company level gives one picture, the day to day struggles of individual companies. Sometimes looking at that level misses the bigger picture.

Stepping back from the company, we arrive at a level where the seismic forces at play with Big Pharma can be observed. Geologists are fond of saying that North America and Europe are slowly moving towards each other again. And, if we all live long enough, say a couple of hundred million years give or take, then we can see it. (Larry won’t be able to get all those frequent flyer miles anymore.) Fortunately, or unfortunately if you’re either Big Pharma management or its shareholders, we’re not going to have wait nearly as long to see the end results in the pharmaceutical industry.

Whatever comes out of this process on the other end will be very different from what came in at the beginning. I’m predicting the end of Big Pharma. Yep, you heard it here first folks. Big Pharma is going away. No, pharmaceutical companies will still be around. But, the corporate behemoths that strode the Earth invoking hope and fear among all who laid eyes on them will be gone like the Olympic gods of yesterday.

I have two observations about this.

First, many are still in denial about what’s going on. Like Andrew Bary in his Barron’s article, they’re not seeing the big picture. Moody’s recent downgrading of its earnings expectations to negative for Eli Lilly ( ) recognizes the current problem but still misses the future ones. The myth of long term earnings improvements is based on the myth of the future drug pipeline. It never ends! Whatever happened to provocative business journalism and rigorous financial analysis?

Next, what replaces Big Pharma? I still believe that fragmentation and geographic dispersal will result from the changes that are underway. There is historical precedent for this. Remember IBM and DEC? Once upon a time they dominated the computer industry. In fact for one brief, shining moment, IBM had it all. Then the personal computer and local area networks came along and, poof, the magic was gone. Not only that, but many of the personal computer players came and went even more quickly. And, now? Now, Lenovo sits in China with the remnants of IBM’s personal computer division. All that in about a generation.
Take a look at a blog ( ) about contract research organizations (CRO’s) that I’ve come across recently and you may see some of the same trends unfolding with pharmaceuticals.

So, how long do you think it will be before some of those big, corporate campuses owned by Big Pharma in New Jersey are going to be subdivided and leased out to the start-ups of their now unemployed corporate occupants?

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Big Pharma – Corruption? Say It Ain’t So

To prepare for these blogs, I do research. That’s a fancy way of saying that I sit in front of my laptop and do a lot of Google searches (my preferred engine of choice). And, I’m noticing a few things lately.

First, there’s not a lot of good news out there for Big Pharma. OK, sure there’s a lot of marketing hype and spin meistering going on but not any really positive trends. Talk about biotechnology and its promise but not much on delivering on those promises.

Second, the usual bad news stories, patent expiration, generic competition, cost models out of whack, diminishing pipelines, and I’m sure I missed a few are still there. These stories go back for years, the beginning of the decade in some cases with more coming every year.

So imagine my chagrin when I came across a recent article from Natural News written by David Gutierrez posted on Kevin Trudeau’s website ( ) discussing the release of a fact sheet from the World Health Organization (WHO) discussing corruption and unethical practices in the pharmaceutical industry. These guys just can’t catch a break.

We seem to be moving from a period of public perception of an industry under siege to one that’s preying on the public. I suspect that except for BP’s current contribution to the public image of multinational corporations, Big Pharma might be getting more heat than they have been lately.

Now, let’s get back to that WHO report. WHO Fact Sheet No. 335 was first released back in December 2009. The actual report can be viewed at . The authors looked at what they call the medicines chain which included all steps in the development, marketing, and consumption of drugs and they claim that there is corruption in every step of the chain. In fact, they’ve included a pretty nifty chart ( ) diagramming each of those steps and the corresponding types of corruption that occur. (Rest assured, there will be future blogs about what’s going on here.)

The fact sheet states that all countries regardless of their developed status have issues. Developed countries are estimated to lose $23 billion US annually to dishonest healthcare practices. Certain practices would seem to lend themselves to certain countries and companies. I’ll hazard a guess and say that research and development and clinical trial fraud are probably more likely in the developed countries where much of this work occurs than with the less developed ones. Likewise, counterfeit drugs are a bigger for less developed countries lacking the necessary infrastructure to examine the drugs. And, I’m sure there are examples which contradict both scenarios.
In closing, I’m getting the sense that Big Pharma’s troubles are far from over and if anything they’re entering a new stage which may presage new ones coming soon.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Shot Across the Bow III

This week, I’ll be finishing my commentary on Andrew Bary’s recent cover story in Barron’s (The article is available online only for subscribers, a short preview is available at .) about the future prospects for drug stocks.

I started this series of blogs because after reading the article for the first time I was astonished at the lack of analysis of what simply appeared to be regurgitations of pharmaceuticals’ public relations flacks. The other interesting aspect of the article is the long term view that I takes. When the dates that Andrew is writing about finally come around no one’s going to remember either this article or him. I wish I could get writing gigs like that.

Last time I left off just as Andrew was about to tackle Roche. He quotes unnamed “bulls” as saying that this company has the best potential of the nine companies he’s writing about. He assumes the stock could rise 30% simply from earnings growth in the next several years. OK, why? Or, better yet, given all that we know that is out there working against this industry why should we expect earnings to simply “increase”? Especially since maybe $1 billion in annual revenues could be at risk if the FDA reconsiders its previous approval of the breast cancer drug Avastin. Check out the Bloomberg Businessweek article for more details ( ).

Next up, Andrew tackles GlaxoSmithKline. This one is going to be easy. (You can tell that I’m enjoying this can’t you?) Now, Andrew couldn’t have known that the Avandia story ( ) would have broken so soon after he wrote his article. In fairness, his comments about the drug are probably his most insightful in the entire article. But, once again, he misses the obvious to follow lemming-like the unnamed bulls that he appears to be so enamored with. What gives here?

Andrew reviews three more companies in his article, Lilly, Bristol Meyers Squibb, and Astra-Zeneca. I won’t prolong the torture by going through these one by one. But, the same themes are there. A long term look at 2015, the current dividends are good, or yeah, there’re problems but there’s always tomorrow. (I’m expecting Annie to get some credits here.) Can this guy really believe all this?

I think Barron’s and Andrew really missed an opportunity here. I’m also disappointed with Barron’s, they typically run tougher pieces that challenge the conventional thinking.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened before in the U.S. economy. The auto and banking industries are good current examples. The personal computer industry is a slightly older example and the mainframe computer industry in the Sixties is another good example. How many of you out there remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? (Larry will tell you, I’m a serious student of history.)

One more thing, I’ll take a look back on this article in 2015 and see just well Andrew called this one.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Shot Across the Bow II

This week, I’ll be continuing my commentary on Andrew Bary’s recent cover story in Barron’s (The article is available online only for subscribers, a short preview is available at .) about the future prospects for drug stocks.

I have taken a somewhat contrarian position to Andrew’s. Here are the rest of my comments.

Andrew chides the bears’ position about drug stocks and then proceeds to review a number of pure drug play stocks. Along the way he nods toward the bulls by telling them to take Warren Buffet’s (whom I think is living on his reputation for a while now, be careful of financial advisors who raffle off lunch with themselves for charity). But, honestly, every racetrack in the country has touts giving the same advice on how to play the ponies.

Andrew’s comments about Merck don’t really provide any insight on why there should be hope for a change anytime soon there. He talks of “promising” drugs acquired in the Schering-Plough acquisition and Merck’s “historically…productive labs”. Again, no new insights. Every stock prospectus ever issued (at least since the SEC’s been around) says that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. So, why should any of this make Merck a better investment. Then there’s the projection of a potential stock price in the mid-40’s from today’s 36 per share “if the pipeline pans out”. That’s a nice, safe, long term projection that is so far out that it should be perfectly safe to make. Also, it doesn’t do too much for an investor today.

Next up, my man Andrew tackles Sanofi. He gets it right about this being “underappreciated” but it’s where he goes from there that I disagree with. His faith in their drug pipeline seems to be based primarily on the CEO’s blandishments. Again, Andrew gets it right about the immediate challenges that this company faces but looking past 2013, he thinks things could be wonderful. Why? Because of their “vaccines and insulin products”. What type of margins will these products have? They sound like the type of products that national healthcare programs would pay for. The same programs that are playing hardball on pricing. I don’t know where Andrew plans on being a few years from now, but, I’ll wager it won’t be at Barron’s.

Pfizer and Novartis are the next drug stocks reviewed by Bary. He’s not as optimistic about the former, reality has to set in sometime, and with the latter, he gives a rosy forecast for 2015.

I’ll have more to blog about this article in my next blog. I find it rather disappointing that a major publication like Barron’s can expend as much printer’s ink as they did for this article and it doesn’t really add anything new to the debate.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Shot Across the Bow

I don’t often get worked up over other writers’ work but a recent cover story by Andrew Bary in Barron’s about the rosy prospects for drug stocks set me off. (The article is available online only for subscribers, a short preview is available at . By the way, a subscription to Barron’s online edition is a very cost effective, environmentally friendly thing to do. Both Larry and I subscribe.) Here’s what got me going.

Andrew’s premise is that far from being dead, Big Pharma is on the cusp of a resurgence that could see some stocks rise by 30%. OK, now, those of you who have been faithfully following this blog know that I think anything but that about Big Pharma. The article was to me nothing more than a compilation of Big Pharma press releases. Sorry Andrew.

Let me explain why I feel this way. And, in fairness to Andrew, I’m not disputing his facts, I just see things differently, very differently.

First up, Andrew writes of the shift to vaccines and biologics. No argument there but will the profit margins be there? Also, given where healthcare reform is headed in this country and the budget shortfalls for many governments around the world (e.g., Greece, Ireland) how much money can actually be made here? Then there’s competition. What will happen when all the major pharmaceutical companies pile on? Profit margins will only get thinner. Biologics sound expensive and with their apparent manufacturing complexity can manufacturers really handle this and still make a profit?

Next, the writer quoting an analyst implies that drug stocks may be at their lows. I’ll admit that contrarianism would make the case that a buying opportunity may exist here but I don’t believe so. Contrarianism can’t trump fundamentals. (There’s a PhD dissertation in here somewhere.) And, the fundamentals aren’t good here.

Then, the dividend argument is played. (The older I get the more I can’t believe how these old bones keep getting gnawed.) Yes, dividend payouts are high for some of these companies. The argument is given that cash flows are strong. Yes, they are today but what about tomorrow when they dry up and cash balances are drawn down. Unless of course, some bright spark decides to borrow to continue paying those dividends. Shareholders of General Electric, and General Motors once used to look forward fondly to those quarterly dividend checks which don’t come anymore or are far smaller than they once were.

I’m not finished here. I’ll be back in the next several blogs to continue to dissect this article because I feel it needs to be put into perspective.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Europe – Big Pharma’s Next Big One?

Lately, Big Phama hasn’t had much in the way of good news. And, I’m afraid that this week’s blog won’t do anything to improve that impression.

The European Union’s (EU) recent problems with its Euro currency and fiscal problems in Greece and other smaller countries will only continue to put pressure on the profits of drug companies.

A recent article by Stephen G. Brozak and Lawrence F. Jindra, MD, How the Euro’s Woes Could Impact Health of Biotechnology, the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Average American, ( ) highlights the impact of foreign exchange losses on overseas revenues in addition to lower sales because of straining national healthcare systems. One point that I disagree with them about is when they say that life sciences companies will have to raise prices in the U.S. to offset foreign losses. I don’t think it will be that easy. First, American insurance companies and government providers won’t roll over and take price increases without a fight. Next, the U.S. consumer is still having a rough time. Household and disposable incomes are recovering (some economists would argue that they are in a cyclical downward trend with no end in sight) so those price increases may only drive more customers away.

I suspect that the various EU national healthcare systems will probably take advantage of their control over drug and other medical products to not only reject price increases but to roll prices back. At a minimum, they may just decide to restrict the quantities purchased. Even the Indian Ministry of Commerce is forecasting difficult times ahead for its country’s drug industry ( ). Not a good outlook for the global healthcare industry.

Another interesting point from Brozak’s and Jindra’s article is that the number of small biotechnology companies, the engines of new drug development, have decreased from 400 in 2009 to 300 in 2010. They hint at the impact on future revenues when the pipeline is drying up.

Unfortunately, for a while now, I’ve been somewhat negative about prospects for the life science’s industry. We are continuing to see fundamental changes in this industry as it downsizes after at least a generation of outsized growth which wasn’t sustainable. I’ll continue to blog about what’s happening and where this all may be going.

Flashback: I just want to reference back to a prior week’s blog on Offshoring – Gone Too Far? Recently, MSNBC carried a story by Christopher Bodeen of the Associated Press ( ) about ongoing labor unrest in China by workers seeking higher wages. Apparently, some are seeking pay increases up to 20%. Let’s see what that does to the offshoring trend! I’ll keep an eye on this developing story.

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

Contributed by Guy de Lastin