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.

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Contributed by Guy de Lastin

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