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Pfizer Inc. (PFE): Could Novartis AG (ADR) (NVS) Decision Bring Pharma Sector Rotation?

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One of the best places to be fully invested these days is pharmaceuticals.

Over the last year the biggest drug makers, like Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), and Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS), which trades as an ADR here, are all up sharply. Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS) is up over 30%.

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE)

But to hear the company’s PR tell it, the company is about to go down hard. The company is upset that it lost an appeal to re-patent Glivec, its leading cancer drug,  by making it easier to tolerate. The country’s Supreme Court ruled, instead, that Indian generic makers could continue marketing their version of the generic. (The drug is sold in the U.S. under the name Gleevec.)

Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS) said that, in response to the ruling, it would no longer invest in Indian research, but patent drugs developed elsewhere in the country.

What does all this mean for investors? Not as much as you may think.

The patent cliff

What it probably means is that leadership in this space may be about to return to the generics makers, which over the last six months haven’t been doing as well as the branded companies.

This would re-assert a pattern that had been in place since the 2008 Wall Street collapse, under which Actavis Inc (NYSE:ACT), formerly Watson Pharmaceuticals, is up 215%. While branded companies put their heaviest investment into scientists and studies, the generic companies are known for putting their big bucks into lawyers, who fight the branded companies’ efforts to protect patent protections in courts around the world.

Last month, for instance, Actavis settled with Astra-Zeneca and won permission to market a generic version of Crestor, that company’s statin drug. The deal includes payments to Astra-Zeneca during the remaining “pediatric exclusivity” but clears the way for U.S. approval of the generic. The company is also fighting in court to market a 1.62% testosterone gel. Top sellers include generic versions of Lipitor and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)’s ADHD drug Concerta.

The Actavis name came from a recent Swiss acquisition, which the board of the U.S. company liked so much they adopted it for their whole firm. Actavis has responded to the “patent cliff” – the expiration of many important patents over the coming years, including statins and anti-depressants, through an active program of acquisitions that have made it the third-largest generics maker in the world.

Generics makers have lower expenses than branded companies, but they also have lower sales. Competition among makers tends to quickly bring the price of a generic down to a level fairly close to its production cost. Actavis, for instance, had earnings of less than $100 million on sales of almost $6 billion last year. You buy this stock for growth. Actavis was less than half its current size, by sales, in 2009. Those are Amazonian numbers.

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