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Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY), GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (GSK), And Why You Don’t Have to Run a Cartel to Make Big Profits in Drugs

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The market for prescription and over-the-counter drugs is huge and hugely profitable. With the global trend of an aging population well underway, it is nearly inevitable that demand for prescription and non-prescription drugs will rise. While much is made in the media regarding the so-called “patent cliff” faced by the large drug makers, well-placed investments now will allow investors to reap double-digit gains for years to come. Investors who are willing to buy during high uncertainty do very well when everyone wakes up later — and that is the situation with the drug industry today.

Drug companies in all shapes and sizes

Publicly-traded drug companies come in all shapes and sizes, from small biotech firms to giant international powerhouses with market capitalization in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Some have no products on the market and some have massive numbers.

Unless one is blessed with a technical understanding of the industry or medicine, evaluating this type of business is a matter of wading through oceans of numbers and finding the businesses that offer value. This can become an arduous task given the diversity of the industry and the pending expiration of large numbers of significant patents.

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT)

Among some of the well-known names such as Eli Lilly & Co. (NYSE:LLY) , GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (NYSE:GSK), Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) and Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) there seems to be enough variation in the valuations to create an opportunity for investment, as indicated from the data in the table* below.

BUSINESS LLY GSK PFE ABT
Dividend Yield 3.4% 4.63% 3.1% 1.52%
Payout Ratio 55% 79% 69% 44%
2014 P/E 20.54 12.78 13 16.54
5-yr. Fwd. Gwth. 1.5% 6.7% 4.2% 11.6%
Debt/Equity 0.37 3.15 0.46 0.67
Cash & Short Term Investments $5.684B $4.265B 32.708B $15.174B
Price/Cash Flow 11.7 13.4 11.2 7.9

*Information shown in this table compiled from data on MSN Money

One quick way to estimate the fair value of a business is to take the sum of the projected five year earnings growth rate plus the dividend yield and compare it to the next year’s earnings estimate. Based upon that calculation, GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (NYSE:GSK) would be the least expensive of the group with a fair value of 11.33 times 2014 earnings versus an actual number of 12.78 for a multiple of 1.13, followed by Abbott Labs with a multiple of 1.26. The negative that stands out for GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (NYSE:GSK) is the high debt-to-equity ratio of 3.15. The obvious positives for Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) are the lowest payout ratio of the group and the massive cash holding and short-term investments as a percentage of total market capitalization, at approximately 25%. This positions Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) well in regard to potential acquisitions, dividend increases and new drug development. Considering the conservative 44% payout ratio and the overall trend in the market today of returning excess cash to shareholders, it would not be surprising to see higher dividends or share repurchases from Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT).

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