Tuesday, March 10, 2009

WSJ: Drug-Industry Shakeout Hits Small Firms Hard

Mar 10, 2009
Wall Street Journal


Drug makers have begun a frenzied consolidation drive that is redrawing the industry landscape.

Merck & Co.'s $41.1 billion agreement to acquire Schering-Plough Corp., announced Monday, follows Pfizer Inc.'s $68 billion January takeover deal for Wyeth. Roche Holding AG's seven-month pursuit of Genentech Inc. was also nearing an agreement Monday, according to people familiar with the situation.

The push to consolidate is being driven by the knowledge that the big companies' pipelines aren't producing enough new moneymakers to keep growth going when major products lose patent protection over the next couple of years. As a result, the drug giants are looking to consolidations that will cut costs by combining research and sales efforts and eliminating other overlaps.

What will be left is an industry dominated by behemoths, raising questions about the fates of smaller drug companies, as well as the countless small biotechs hungry for suitors. Even though their labs aren't what they used to be, the major pharmaceutical companies have product lineups that still command fat margins, giving most of them the cash to pursue deals.

"There are too many companies chasing smaller revenue opportunities, so there's got to be a shakeout," says analyst Tim Anderson at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "If you've got cash and the value of the companies you want to buy is lower, it's the perfect setup."

There could also be pressure tied to moves in Washington, where health-care reform could eat into margins. Bigger drug companies might be in a better position to bundle their products and negotiate with the government, analysts say.

The wreckage on Wall Street is also a factor: The health-care sector is traditionally viewed as a relatively safe bet, making it easier for drug companies to get financing than other industries.

But megadeals haven't cured industry problems in the past. Pfizer paid $116 billion for Warner-Lambert in 2000 and an additional $54 billion for Pharmacia in 2003, yet still needed to acquire Wyeth this year to help replenish an anemic pipeline.

As the dust settles, Eli Lilly & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., AstraZeneca PLC, Sanofi-Aventis SA and Johnson & Johnson seem most likely to be involved in the next wave of consolidation, analysts say. Factors including existing partnerships, the timing of patent expirations and how well drug makers can absorb multiple acquisitions could affect who will be a buyer and who will be a seller.

"Bristol and Lilly stand out in terms of size versus the rest of the industry," says Les Funtleyder, an industry analyst at Miller Tabak. "They'll have to do something, because it's a consolidating industry."

Lilly, based in Indianapolis with a market capitalization of $32 billion, will lose patent protection on its bestselling antipsychotic Zyprexa in 2011. It just bought ImClone for $6.5 billion. Mr. Anderson suggests it could merge with Bristol-Myers, whose chief executive, James Cornelius, came from Lilly.

Lilly, which has strong ties to Indiana and an undesirable series of patent losses coming up, would be more likely to buy than sell. "There's no way Lilly's a takeout," says Mr. Anderson.

Mark Taylor, a Lilly spokesman, says, "We're not interested in large-scale M&A activity in pharma and believe small and medium scale acquisitions, licensing and internal development" are the best way forward for Lilly.

Bristol-Myers faces a similar dilemma, because Plavix, the bloodthinner it sells with Sanofi-Aventis, faces generic competition in 2011. A merger with Lilly could face antitrust hurdles because both companies have clotting drugs and antipsychotics. A tie-up with Sanofi-Aventis is frequently rumored because of Plavix.

Bristol-Myers sold its ConvaTec wound-care business last May for $4.1 billion and offered a $720 million partial initial public offering for its nutritional business last month -- divestitures that could either add to its war chest for deals or make it a more attractive takeover target. Bristol-Myers declined to comment.

Sanofi-Aventis's new chief executive, Christopher Viehbacher, said in an interview last week that he isn't seeking a megamerger but would consider deals of under $19 billion. Some analysts say that could leave Sanofi-Aventis open to buying the U.S. biotech company Biogen Idec Inc., which has a market value of $13.3 billion. Both companies have declined to comment.

Another possibility for Bristol-Myers could be a deal with Britain's AstraZeneca because the companies are co-developing a drug for diabetes called saxagliptin. One rationale for the combination of Merck and Schering-Plough is to run the companies' joint venture selling the cholesterol medicines Vytorin and Zetia under one roof. AstraZeneca declined to comment, but has said in the past it's not interested in big deals.

Catherine Arnold, a drug-industry analyst at Credit Suisse, says that hasn't stopped companies in the past. "Sanofi, Glaxo and Novartis have said they're not interested in big deals, but Jeff Kindler said that nine months ago," she said, referring to a statement in March 2008 by Pfizer's chief executive that he did not see a megamerger on the horizon.

Meantime, 180, or 45%, of publicly traded biotech companies have less than a year of cash on hand, and about half are trading below $1 a share, according to BIO, the trade group for the biotechnology industry based in Washington.

But biotech acquisitions aren't a panacea. One reason is that small companies offer little opportunity for cost savings. Another is the worry that founders and scientists will leave if their companies are taken over.

In the interview last week, Mr. Viehbacher indicated his preferred strategy would be to enter partnerships with biotech companies rather than acquire them. "You don't want to bring them in to the mother ship because then you ruin it," he said.

The severe funding crunch facing small biotech companies is prompting worries that important new drugs won't make it to market, impeding the progress of medicine. "Innovation has been on the biotech side, but now the money is gone," says Edward Saltzman, president of industry consultant DefinedHealth. "We're in a pickle."

Meanwhile, the next target could actually be Schering-Plough. Johnson & Johnson, an historically acquisitive company, could throw a wrench in Merck's plan by making a more attractive offer for Schering. J&J sells Remicade, an anti-inflammatory drug, with Schering-Plough, and a deal for the company could give it full rights to the drug.

--Jeanne Whalen contributed to this article.

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