Employer Mandate: A Pharma Bump in the Road

by William Smead, Smead Capital Management

As long-duration value investors, we at Smead Capital Management have been very attracted to the conservative accounting, shareholder friendly dividends/buybacks and bright pipeline futures of major pharmaceutical/biotech companies like Merck (MRK), Pfizer (PFE) and Amgen (AMGN). Lately, there has been weakness in these shares and we’d like to review our best theory for recent fears and price weakness, while reviewing the merit of these high quality shares.

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One of the more significant deals made by President Obama to get his healthcare plan enacted into law was the one cut with the major pharmaceutical companies. They agreed to give huge price breaks to seniors on prescriptions (fill the donut hole) in hopes of taking less of a beating in the court of public rhetoric and by gaining a huge number of newly insured potential customers. One of the keys to these new customers was the employee mandate. It has been postponed for at least one year out of fear that businesses would postpone hiring or lay off workers. This fear seems to us to be the cause of recent weakness in the prices of major pharmaceutical companies.

To understand the conservative accounting of pharmaceutical companies, you only have to look at their R&D budgets as a percentage of revenue. This R&D investment bears long-term fruit and is expensed, artificially hiding the incredible profitability of these companies. Most companies capitalize and depreciate long-term investments. Despite their ultra-conservative income statements these businesses generate high returns on equity (ROE) without leverage.

R & D as a percent of sales ROE
MRK 16.7% 20.6%
PFE 13.3% 17.4%
AMGN 19.6% 26.4%
Source: Thomson Reuters: Baseline

Merck pays a 3.6% dividend, recently added $5 billion to an existing buyback authorization and trades around 12.6 times earnings looking forward (P/E 2014). Pfizer pays a 3.4% dividend, boosted its buyback authority last week by $10 billion and trades at around 12.0 P/E forward. Amgen pays a 1.9% dividend, is in a $12 billion stock buyback and has publicly stated that the company would return 60% of adjusted net income to shareholders via dividends and buybacks. It trades at a forward year multiple of 11.8 P/E.

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About the author

William Smead

Chief Executive Officer/Chief Investment Officer

Whitman College, B.A. Economics 1980

William is the founder of Smead Capital Management, where he oversees all activities of the firm. As Chief Investment Officer, he is the final decision-maker for all investment and portfolio decisions as well as reviewing the implementation of those decisions in the firm’s separate accounts and mutual funds.

William began his career in the investment business with Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1980. He left Drexel Burham Lambert in 1989 as First Vice President/Assistant Manager and joined Oppenheimer & Co., where he stayed until joining Smith Barney in 1990. William remained at Smith Barney until September 2001 when he joined Wachovia Securities becoming the Managing Director/Portfolio Manager of Smead Investment Group of Wachovia Securities. In 2007, William left Wachovia Securities to found Smead Capital Management.

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