Schering: A diamond in the rough
This is a transitional year for big drugmakers. But some analysts say that one could be a good bet in the meantime.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Now that the nation's big drugmakers have reported mostly strong first-quarter results, how do things look going forward?
This year is expected to be weak for Merck, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, but 2007 is expected to be better, according to a consensus of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call. Earnings forecasts are stronger for Schering-Plough, Wyeth and Eli Lilly & Co.
While analysts are mixed about Pfizer and Merck stock, some say that Schering-Plough could be a winner.
"2006 for all of them is a year of restructuring and getting costs under control and right-sizing their ship," said Les Funtleyder, an industry analyst at Miller Tabak. "They're trying to get their infrastructure to the optimal size for their pipeline going forward to '07, '08, '09, when you might be able to see some earnings growth."
Sales and earnings at the nation's No. 2 drugmaker are expected to sink this year but flatten out next year. Merck (Research) stock has recovered some ground from its Vioxx implosion in September 2004, though the outlook for the stock is unclear.
Al Rauch, analyst for A.G. Edwards, rates the company a "hold" and said that "in the next six years, [Merck] has to replace 50 percent of their revenues." Rauch has no price target for the stock.
Merck has to contend with the impending June patent loss of cholesterol-cutting Zocor, with $4.4 billion in 2005 sales. The company also faces more than 11,000 lawsuits from people who took Vioxx, the arthritis painkiller.
But Barbara Ryan of Deutsche Bank North America, who rates the company a "buy," says Merck could offset problems with its $4 billion cost-cutting and its pipeline, and she believes that Vioxx-related damages are "priced-in" to the stock.
The world's biggest drugmaker is projected to have flat earnings and sales in 2006, a forecast based largely on Pfizer's (Research) own guidance of $2 a share for 2006. The New York-based company is being affected by weaker-than-expected sales for its cholesterol-cutting drug Lipitor, the world's top seller, which could get squeezed further by a cheaper, generic version of Merck痴 Zocor.
Pfizer's stock has fallen over the last 12 months. Rauch at A.G. Edwards rates the company a "hold" and is concerned that it faces patent losses on cholesterol-cutter Norvasc and allergy treatment Zyrtec in the next two years.
But Ryan at Deutsche Bank North America rates the company a "buy," and says she's confident about Pfizer's ability to boost its pipeline via acquisition.
Sabrina Corollo, analyst for Ariel Capital Management, a holder of Pfizer shares, said she's bullish on the cash-rich drug giant's ability to beef up its pipeline by buying smaller companies. "There's a lot of cash on the balance sheet, and we believe that they'll be putting that to work near-term instead of sitting on it."
Bristol, Wyeth, Lilly
Bristol-Myers (Research) is projected to suffer an earnings decline in 2006, followed by a small gain in 2007. Flat sales are projected for 2006, with a small increase in 2007. Bristol is facing a patent loss of $1.5 billion worth of drug sales in 2006, primarily from the loss of cardiovascular treatment Pravachol and ovarian cancer treatment Taxol.
"Bristol-Myers Squibb is experiencing multiple patent expirations and will likely exhibit no earnings growth for the next couple of years," Rauch at Edward wrote in an earnings note. Rauch rates the company "hold," while Ryan of Deutsche Bank North America forecasts little change for the stock over the next 12 months.
Analysts are forecasting sales and earnings at Wyeth and Eli Lilly & Co. will grow modestly in 2006 and 2007.
Wyeth's (Research) earnings will be driven by "modest gains" for the antidepressant Effexor and nighttime heartburn treatment Protonix this year, according to Ryan of Deutsche Bank North America, who rates the company a "hold." She said earnings and the stock price are heavily tied to its pipeline.
Lilly (Research) has a similar profile: solid earnings growth is projected, partly based on cost-cutting, but also heavily dependent on sales for new products. Declining sales of schizophrenia treatment Zyprexa could be a drag on future earnings and the stock, she said.
"At current levels, we see little opportunity for the stock to break out," Ryan wrote.
Schering-Plough (Research), which reported the strongest first-quarter earnings jump in the sector, is expected to post strong earnings driven by Vytorin, a cholesterol-cutting drug cocktail developed with Merck. Rauch at A.G. Edwards sees the stock, which has fallen sharply since last fall, rising about 25 percent over the next 12 months.
Ryan of Deutsche Bank North America, who also has also has a "buy" rating on the stock, said, "The turnaround at Schering-Plough is clearly in evidence."
Schering "really went through a struggle," said Corollo at Ariel Capital, noting it lost its Claritin franchise and faced increased competition in the hepatitis drug sector the previous two years. "But the worst of the problems are behind them."
To read about the drug sector's first quarter earnings, click here.