The Rising Cost of Healthcare Taken To Another Extreme

LOS ANGELES, March 26 (Reuters) – Shares of Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. (ALXN) rose more than 9 percent on Monday after the company told analysts that its treatment for a rare blood disorder would be priced at $389,000 per year.

The drug, Soliris, was approved earlier this month as the first product to treat paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a condition that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.

“We considered many factors when establishing a price for Soliris. These included the rarity of this disabling and life threatening disease, the compelling clinical benefits that PNH patients experience with Soliris … the cost of discovery, development and production, and of ongoing research …,” David Keiser, the chief operating officer said on the call.

The company’s shares rose $3.71 to close at $43.78 on Nasdaq.

Imagine you are one of those approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. who have PNH. Finally, a drug has been approved by the FDA that may help you tremendously. You would likely be exuberant, for a little while anyway, until you learned how much the drug will cost. And that price is at the wholesale level.

This isn’t a political blog, so I’m not going to get into a discussion about what our country should do about healthcare costs that are spiraling out of control. No matter your view on the subject, investors should realize that until something changes, until a drug that is the first one approved to treat a condition doesn’t cost $389,000 per year, healthcare companies are probably going to have an easy time making money.

Some people won’t care, some people will be outraged and refuse to buy a stock like Alexion, and others will be outraged but will also separate their inner beliefs and politics from their investment strategy for the sake of reaching their financial goals. I have no opinion on the investment merit of Alexion stock, as I haven’t done work on it. It’s no shock though that it reacted well to this news.

Full Disclosure: No position in the company mentioned at the time of writing

Response to Iran Rumors Shows that Energy Should Be Owned as a Geopolitical Hedge

In case you haven’t heard yet, oil prices spiked more than $5 per barrel late Tuesday on rumors that Iran had fired shots at U.S. warships. Although the gains were pared once the news went unconfirmed, one only needs to imagine what would happen if heightened geopolitical actions were indeed reality. In such an environment, energy stocks will serve as a hedge for your portfolio and as a result, avoiding them is not advisable given the global political situation we currently find ourselves living in.

The energy sector represents 10% of the market cap of the S&P 500, so it isn’t difficult to determine if you are dramatically underweight these stocks or not. When you couple shrinking global supply with increasing demand worldwide and geopolitical instability, it’s pretty hard to make the case that oil prices are headed back to $30 per barrel. Add in the fact that the summer driving season is right around the corner and it’s not hard to imagine gasoline back over $3 per gallon and oil prices back in the 70’s.

Investors can play the group via the crude oil exchange traded fund (symbol USO) or any number of exploration and production companies. As for individual stocks though, if you want to get exposure to rising oil prices, make sure the company you buy doesn’t have a large amount of their future revenue hedged at lower prices. Such companies will likely see less movement than those who are mostly unhedged.

Patient Investors: Take A Look at Amgen

As a value investor, it is often easier to find undiscovered or unloved stocks in the small and mid cap universe. After all, bigger companies are well known, followed by more analysts, and are very popular with retail investors. Those three factors lead to fairly high valuations more often than not within large caps. The tables have turned very quickly on Amgen shareholders. The stock hit a new yearly high in January of $78 per share. Since then though, they have seen a 25 percent haircut on several negative news events.

 

First, the FDA ordered the company to alter its warning label on Amgen’s lead products for Anemia, Aronesp and Epogen, in order to warn doctors and patients about increased risks when using the drugs for off-label uses. Investors are worried that Amgen could lose as much as 10% of their sales of these drugs if people currently using them in off-label doses cut back.

 

The current stock price seems to suggest that Amgen not only will lose a sizable chunk of Anemia franchise sales, but also will not be able to make that up with any new drugs. Although that seems to be very unlikely over the long term, even if we assume the company does not grow, and their profits level out at around their 2006 level of $3.90 per share, the stock seems to have little downside. This is not to say it can’t go lower in the next few weeks or months, but long term, I really can’t see a world-class biotech company like Amgen trade at much less than 14-15 times earnings.

That is not to say, however, that I shun large cap stocks all the time. If a bigger company has fallen upon hard times and is being beaten up by Wall Street, it often represents an excellent opportunity for a contrarian investment. Expanding on this theme, shares of Amgen (AMGN), the largest biotechnology company in the world, have been slammed in recent weeks and the stock is trading at valuations not seen in years, if ever.

There are also concerns about Amgen’s product pipeline, which many view as weaker than some other large cap biotechnology stocks. In fact, the company announced just last week that they stopped a clinical trial for one of their cancer drug candidates that they were testing in combination with Genentech’s Avastin and chemotherapy.

Despite the short-term setbacks for the company, Wall Street’s current valuation seems to be pricing in all of the negatives, giving very little chance that Amgen will be able to continue to grow. With the stock down $20 from its recent highs made earlier this year, the stock now trades at an astounding 14.9 times trailing earnings, cheaper than the S&P 500. As you can see from the chart below, biotech stocks traditionally trade at a premium to the market, and today is no exception, except for Amgen.

Obviously, a huge downward revision in earnings forecasts would make the current P/E outdated, but with a strong stock buyback in place, and the ability to make acquisitions to fill up their product pipeline (They bought Abgenix last year), an earnings collapse seems unlikely. Growth may slow, but the stock already reflects much, if not all, of that expectation.

If anything positive happens with the company, investors will likely realize fairly quickly that they became way too negative. With 25 drugs currently in development, the days of successful discoveries in Amgen’s laboratories shouldn’t be over by any means, but judging by the stock price, you’d think the company was on life support.

In cases like this when the market is assuming the worst, oftentimes it turns out that things will play out better than people are fearing. In my opinion, contrarian investors should consider adding Amgen to their list of stocks that warrant a closer look.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of AMGN at the time of writing

Blackstone IPO Signals Private Equity Market is “As Good as it Gets”

Throughout history, what has been one of the worst types of investments to buy? If you answered IPOs, you’re correct. Before commenting on the $4 billion IPO of private equity behemoth Blackstone Group, let’s review why exactly IPOs are such bad investments.

Companies sell stock when demand for shares is high, and they buy stock when interest is lacking. If things are going great, demand will be high and an IPO is the preferred way to cash in. The “smart money” as it’s called, sells to the dumb money.

Well, guess what? Steve Schwarzman and the rest of the Blackstone Group gang is very “smart” money. If they want to sell a piece of their management company to you, it’s probably for a good reason. If they thought the bull market in private equity had a few more years left in the tank, they certainly wouldn’t choose to sell now.

This event, unlike the Fortress Investment Group (FIG) IPO (which I don’t think marks a top in hedge funds), signals that the bull market in private equity, and perhaps in the stock market in general, is running thin. Think back to the Goldman Sachs (GS) IPO. Like Blackstone, Goldman refused to go public for years, but when things got so good, they couldn’t resist anymore. In case you don’t remember, Goldman’s IPO was in 1999 and the market peaked less than a year later.

Much like the bull still ran a bit after GS went public, I don’t think the market will necessarily peak coincidentally with the Blackstone IPO. However, it’s important to understand that IPOs are traditionally bad investments for a reason, and it’s that reason and that reason alone that explains why Blackstone has chosen to go public. Also, be aware that Blackstone is selling a piece of its management company, so investors in the IPO are buying ownership of their 2-and-20 fee income. The IPO proceeds is not going to be used to fund more private equity deals.

Of course, the irony is that private equity’s whole game is convincing companies that the public market isn’t worth the trouble and they would be better suited going private. You know if Blackstone wants to go public there is a pretty good reason why. In this case, that reason is dollar bills. Four billion of them, in fact.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at time of writing

Motorola Earnings Warning Highlights Failure to Find Next Hit After RAZR

Shares of Motorola (MOT) are getting smacked in pre-market trading after the mobile phone giant shocked Wall Street yesterday by forecasting a first quarter loss. After having failed to find another hit after the wildly popular RAZR phone, rumors are swirling that Motorola may buy handheld maker Palm (PALM) to boost its product offering. As you can see from the chart below, shares of MOT are nearing multi-year lows.

Is it worth it to bargain hunt in this stock? After all, shareholder activist Carl Icahn recently purchased a stake in the company and his calls for increasing shareholder payouts in the form of dividends and buybacks will likely only get louder with yesterday’s announcement.

Motorola has always had a ton of cash on its balance sheet and that is still the case. After netting out $4.4 billion in debt as of December 31st, the company has $12.3 in cash. That equates to a stunning $5 per share (Motorola is indicated to trade at $17 and change at the open this morning). With trailing earnings of $1.19 in 2006, MOT shares are pretty cheap.

That said, given how hard the cell phone business is, perhaps Motorola deserves a below-market multiple during tough times. After all, exciting new products aren’t right around the corner, and if they go ahead with an acquisition of Palm, it’s hard to think Wall Street will be drooling over the move.

Although shares of Motorola are down significantly, I probably wouldn’t want to step in yet. As you can see from the chart, the stock got down to the $14-$15 area the last time the company hit hard times. If we got back down to those types of levels, I would be more inclined to bargain hunt in the name.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing

After Losing Caremark Bid, Will Express Scripts Target Medco Next?

Shares of Express Scripts (ESRX) have been on fire lately, rising 30% within months as the company tried to pry competitor Caremark Rx (CMX) from CVS (CVS). Somewhat surprisingly, ESRX shares have jumped to over $84 on news that the CVS deal was approved by shareholders, officially ending Express’ bid. With shares trading at 20 times 2007 earnings projections, the stock isn’t cheap. What might they do next to keep the share price humming along?

It appears they have three choices. They can remain independent, pair up with another pharmacy chain to match Caremark’s move, or do a vertical deal like the one they wanted to do with Caremark. In the latter case, the only big option out there is merging with Medco Health Solutions (MHS). While Medco has $5 billion more in annual sales than Caremark, a buyout would actually cost less, about $20 billion versus $27 billion. A partnership with Rite Aid (RAD) or Walgreens (WAG) would also be a good bet if ESRX feels they need to do something to remain on a level playing field with Caremark.

Given that they fought so hard to get Caremark, it would not surprise me at all if Express Scripts tried to get some sort of deal done. However, barring any accretive deal announcement, the stocks of the pharmacy benefit managers trade at 20 times current year earnings, which is at the high end of their typical trading range. As a result, they appear to be close to fully valued at current levels.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at time of writing

Use Sites Like Yahoo! Finance With Caution

Investors need to be careful when they do stock research on portal sites like Yahoo! Finance. If you enter a symbol in these sites you will quickly get a summary of where the stock trades. Not only do current prices show up, but also other metrics like market cap, earnings per share, P/E ratio, dividend yield, etc.

Keep in mind that oftentimes these numbers are wrong. They can include one-time items like EPS charges and gains, as well as special dividends. Also, the numbers aren’t always adjusted in a timely fashion to account for stock splits. The reason I wanted to point this out is because of an email I received summarizing the contents of this week’s Barron’s Magazine. It said the following:

ST Microelectronics, one of the top five global semiconductor companies, has been beset by troubles including flat sales, a struggle to cut costs, removing itself from the low-margin memory chip business, and competition from strong rivals like Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. Yet its 23x P/E multiple is double that of TI — and Technology Trader Bill Alpert “doesn’t get it.”

If you follow semiconductor stocks you might know that Texas Instruments does not trade at 11.5 times earnings. If it did it would be a screaming buy. I’m surprised that a writer for Barron’s would make a mistake like this, but as soon as I saw it, I knew exactly where Mr. Alpert got that number; Yahoo! Finance.

Sure enough, when you enter STM and TXN into the site, it shows trailing P/E’s for the two stocks as 23 and 11, respectively. However, if you dig deeper you will learn that the TXN number is way too low, likely due to one-time items that Yahoo! (or more accurately the supplier of its data) did not remove. The actual trailing P/E ratio for TXN is 18.5. No wonder Barron’s “doesn’t get” why TXN trades at half the multiple of STM, it really doesn’t.

Don’t make the same mistake Barron’s did. Always double check numbers on finance portal sites if they look a bit strange. Chances are they were miscalculated.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned

Should We Blame the Fed for Sub-Prime’s Woes?

I just heard an argument about this and I think it’s extremely unfair to blame the Fed for the current crisis in the sub-prime mortgage industry. The rationale for doing so postulates that without record low interest rates for so long, the housing market would not have overheated. As a result, many lenders would not have made loans to customers who wanted to buy a house so badly that they might not disclose, or even lie, about their financial condition.

I have a problem with this logic. The sub-prime meltdown was not caused by low interest rates. Instead, it was caused by loose lending standards. The lenders gave loans to people who couldn’t afford them. If you don’t require prospective home buyers to verify their annual incomes or net worth, and you give them mortgages without a down payment and low teaser rates, you need to be responsible for the consequences of such actions.

The sub-prime lenders that are in trouble are the ones who gave loans to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back, either right from the start, or when their ARM’s adjusted upward a few years later. You have to blame the business people who made the loans, not the people themselves. If you blame the Fed, then you are saying that high demand for mortgages was the problem. However, the problem seems to be that the bankers actually matched the high demand with a huge supply of loans.

Corporations are not required to accept every customer that comes knocking on their door. Rather, they have a duty to shareholders to do business that is profitable and in the best interests of the owners of the business. If they fail at managing their company adequately, which has been the case for most sub-prime lenders, the only people they (or anyone else) should blame are themselves.

Great Companies Don’t Always Make Great Stocks

Many times one will look at a value investor’s portfolio and wonder why on earth they own some of the stocks they do. Usually the answer lies in the fact that the manager understands that just because a firm isn’t considered to be a great company, it could very well be a great stock going forward. Stock market investing is about buying a share for less than it will ultimately be worth in the future. It is not about buying stocks of great companies and waiting for the cash to roll in. If the stock isn’t cheap, it won’t outperform consistently over the long term.

I think this is one of the reasons why sell-side analysts tend to be very poor stock pickers. More often than not, they don’t want to have a “sell” rating on Best Buy (BBY) and a “buy” on RadioShack (RSH), for instance. The average person will look at that dichotomy and laugh. They might even ask, based on their shopping preferences, “How can RadioShack be a better stock than Best Buy?”

The reason I bring this up is because of an article I read in the March 5th issue of Fortune. It talked about the performance of America’s most admired companies versus the least admired. When I see the term “most admired” I equate that to what many investors consider a “great company,” a so-called blue chip.

Well, looking at a 1-year chart of the two, we can see who would have been right:

Accordingly, the results of the study cited in the article weren’t surprising to a value investor like myself. The mean annualized return from 1983 through 2006 was +17.8% per year for the least admired, versus just +15.4% for the most admired.

Why was this the case? Because stocks trade based on valuation over long periods of time, not according to the underlying company’s popularity or brand name. In fact, the article also cited the average price-to-book ratios of the two groups of stocks being examined. Most admired: 2.07 times book value. Least admired: 1.27 times book value. Hence, the outperformance over a 23 year period of time.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of RSH at time of writing

Moodys Does What to their RadioShack Credit Rating?

NEW YORK (AP) — Moody’s Investor Services downgraded RadioShack Corp.’s long-term senior unsecured rating and short-term commercial paper Monday on lackluster sales and operations. The ratings agency lowered the electronics retailer’s senior unsecured rating to “Ba1” from “Baa3.” The move means the company’s senior unsecured rating is no longer investment grade. Moody’s also cut RadioShack’s commercial paper rating to “Not Prime” from “Prime-3.”

Sometimes you have to wonder what exactly rating agencies like S&P and Moody’s are looking at when they change corporate bond ratings. This news isn’t material for RadioShack (RSH) common stockholders, but still, it doesn’t make sense.

As I pointed out recently, the RadioShack turnaround is on solid ground. Despite the surge in earnings at the company, Moody’s is looking at sales numbers, not profitability and balance sheet metrics when rating the company’s debt. Not only have most equity analysts missed the huge run in RSH shares, but it appears debt analysts are pretty clueless as well.

RSH has had a huge run, so I wouldn’t be aggressively buying at the current price above $26 per share. That said, a credit downgrade to below investment grade seems to be a strange thing to go ahead with when operations are improving.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of RSH at time of writing