Are All Healthcare Stocks Truly Recession-Proof?

Includes: CAH, DCAI, DVA, FMS
by: David Fessler

This past weekend, I was up at my hunting and fishing club in northeast Pennsylvania enjoying some ice fishing. At our club at least, it’s a pleasant social activity with great food, wine and stories shared among the members and spouses.This year, it happened to fall on the coldest day of the winter, with the temperature dipping to 18 below.

As you might expect this close to the inauguration, many folks are wondering what effect President Obama’s policies will have on the markets and investing. One of our members, who’s a doctor, said: “Invest in healthcare stocks. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, and they’re recession-proof.” Are they?

The answer depends on what area of healthcare you’re talking about. According to Health Affairs, an industry journal, national healthcare spending hit $2.2 trillion in 2007, or just under $7,500 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. This represents a growth rate of 6.1%, the slowest rate of growth since 1998. Why the slowdown?

One of the reasons is the lackluster growth of prescription drug sales here in the U.S. The growth rate for 2007 – the worst in decades – was a measly 4.9%. For 2008, it’s projected to be less than half that.

Medicare Part D regulations and lots of generic competition from companies like Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories (NYSE:RDY) and Teva Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq:TEVA) are partly to blame, too.

Those anemic growth figures have industry giants like Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE:SNY), Novartis (NYSE:NVS) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) shifting their focus onto emerging markets. Not a bad play, as the top seven emerging markets are expected to contribute 34% of global drug sales growth in 2009.

On the equipment side, manufacturers like Cardinal Health (NYSE:CAH) are finding it increasingly more difficult to sell medical products, due to a slowdown in spending by cash-strapped hospitals. They’ve been whacked by a slowing economy that’s seen big charitable donors rein in their gift giving, and higher levels of uninsured patients. And while Cardinal’s disposable medical supplies business is fine, 60% of the company’s revenues come from selling medical products and equipment.

“It is difficult to forecast the exact duration and potential long-term changes in hospital spending patterns, but the company is taking appropriate cost actions to mitigate the impact,” said R. Kerry Clark, Cardinal Chairman and CEO.

Bottom-line: all health-care companies are not alike. Look for the ones that have a high percentage of recurring revenue from disposable products, or services like kidney dialysis. A few examples are DaVita (NYSE:DVA), Fresenius Medical Care AG (NYSE:FMS) and Dialysis Corporation of America (Nasdaq:DCAI).