Monday, May 05, 2014

Investing in Biotechnology Healthcare Earnings Growth

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By Zacks Investment Research

The Biotech Bubble Burst of 2014 will forever be remembered by the sector's investors and traders for the pin that did the pricking in late March: a letter from US Representative Henry Waxman of California to Gilead Sciences (GILD - Trend Report) about the pricing of their hepatitis C drug Sovaldi.

The drug launched in December and was on its way to blockbuster status -- generally regarded as at least $1 billion in annual sales -- almost immediately. But at $84,000 for a 12-weak treatment regime, it certainly raised some eyebrows.

"Our concern is that a treatment will not cure patients if they cannot afford it," wrote Waxman along with other House Democrats from the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Real Cause & Effect Fallout

In the weeks following that letter, the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index ETF (IBB), fell nearly 20% and completed a full 24% correction off its all-time high of $275 down to $210.

The undisputed leader of the pack, Gilead, fell 16% after the letter and also corrected 24% in total off its all-time high near $85 set in February.

But two realities became fairly obvious during that bio-wreck selling...

1) The Biotech sub-sector was already frothy in Q1 and the Waxman letter was only an additional, if not the final, straw

2) The chances of Congress impacting drug pricing, without insurer support, is considered slim by most industry analysts

Why would healthcare insurers not jump at the chance to get Congress to intervene in Gilead's pricing for Sovaldi?

Because the alternative for the cure that Sovaldi provides could be much more expensive. Estimates for liver transplants run between $400,000 and $500,000.

Another element here for insurers like Aetna (AET - Trend Report) and UnitedHealth (UNH - Trend Report) is that while these blockbuster drugs for rare or life-threatening disease get all the headlines about costs, the industry has actually been saving more money with the steady underlying growth of the generic drug business.

The Gilead Earnings Path

This is not to say that some day there won't be legislative action to regulate drug pricing. This first shot across the bow gets a conversation going that could be very productive and educational for all sides.

Lawmakers need to understand the R&D dollars that a company and its investors are willing to risk with experimental drugs. The science alone is not their reward and if too many limits are placed on potential profits, less R&D might ever be started.

So while that national conversation begins, let's look at the earnings growth path of one of the strongest biotech franchises on the planet. Below is the Zacks Price & Consensus chart for Gilead, showing the strong ramp in estimates after the spectacular Sovaldi sales numbers started pouring through in the past month.

The anticipation of a strong Sovaldi launch was so over-the-top, that when the company reported a 92% beat in its bottom line EPS number two weeks ago, estimates actually came down a bit.

With such a big drug launch, analysts are still getting their models tweaked to forecast full-year sales estimates which have ranged from $5 billion to $11 billion.

Clearly with Sovaldi bringing in sales of $2.3 billion in its first full quarter on the market, the figures show the high acceptance level among physicians and insurers for this life-saving treatment. The only disappointing part was the company not raising its guidance or providing specific guidance for Sovaldi sales.

Why GILD is a Core Biopharma Holding

Sovaldi will be probably a cash cow for GILD for at least a couple of years. Even if the company does $10 billion in sales annually they are still only treating a small fraction of the market, with 3 to 4 million in the US afflicted with HCV and over 150 million globally. This is a huge market which Gilead dominates.

Plus, GILD has a productive HIV/AIDS pipeline. And its blood cancer drug, Idelalisib, could eventually compete with Pharmacyclics (PCYC - Trend Report) Imbruvica in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

You can see the company's full drug pipeline on their website. But suffice to say that when they beat the consensus top line number by 25% with $5 billion in revenues, this is a biopharma powerhouse with surprising cash-generating capabilities.

After the company's Q1 report, Deutsche Bank analysts raised their price target on shares from $132 to $135. Hardly a real bump, but it reaffirms their stance on the long-term growth they saw coming last quarter.

I'm with them for the long-term on that call. At $78, the stock is trading at only 9X next year's projected consensus EPS of $8.50. But at a $120 billion market cap, it will take a while to even get to $100. So that's why GILD is the perfect "slow-and-steady" stock for biotech investors.

It's a core holding of many institutions and will only become more so with these growth projections. Buying the stock in the $70s is probably a good place to begin new positions. And don't miss those dips down into the $60s either.

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