Very little attention has been paid to the story that - for my money - is one of the most intriguing so far this year. That's the story of the stunning gains made by major drug and healthcare companies that were in hellacious bear markets for more than 10 years.
While the media has been focused on new highs in precious metals, tech earnings and the rejuvenation of heavy industry, the healthcare sector has quietly taken off.
Our favorite healthcare fund, FirstTrust Health Care Alphadex (NYSE: FXH), has outpaced all other major sectors in the past month and a half, and not just by a little. It's up 10.6%, compared with 6% for tech and 6.2% for energy.
This is something special, because the fund represents healthcare companies like Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE: MRK), Bristol MyersSquibb Co.(NYSE: BMY), Eli Lilly & Co.(NYSE: LLY) and Pfizer Inc.(NYSE: PFE) that have been down so long most investors had given them up not just for dead, but buried in lead.
As you can see in the accompanying chart, these stocks were not just shellacked in the last bear market. They topped out in 2000 and promptly melted down. Unlike most other stocks, they did not come back in favor during the 2003-2007 bull cycle, so the recent advance is all the more remarkable.
Since mid-March, Merck is up 17%, Bristol Myers Squibb 14%, Eli Lilly 11% and Pfizer 10%.
More importantly, if these stocks turn out to be the leaders they were in the 1995-2000 bull cycle, they have a very long way to go.
Of course, they face all kinds of problems now that they didn't back then, including so many drugs going off patent. About $73 billion in branded drugs are expected to lose patent protection by 2015, according to Nadina Rosier, North American pharmacy practice leader at the consultancy Towers Watson.
But if you think about it, these healthcare companies have been mostly profitable for the past 10 years with no stock gains to show for it.
Now if they can just get some multiple expansion, they can really go places. A little earnings upside combined with just three or four points of Price/Earnings multiple expansion could bring many of these stocks at least back to their 2007 levels, and quite possibly back to 2000 levels.
While that may seem impossible, keep in mind that many thought the same of Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), which actually made a lower low in 2010 than it had made in the bear market depths of 2008. And yet energy demand plus multiple expansion turned Exxon around in just 10 months, to the point that it is challenging the early-2008 highs that bears expected to last a generation.
We have talked so much about Exxon and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) in recent months that I'm sure you're tired of hearing about them, but they are a good example for us. Drug companies are so hated and under-owned that they can make similar moves - even if earnings growth is in the single digits for the next couple of years.
I will go into many more details about the pharmaceutical and health insurance sectors in coming weeks, but for now just make sure that you have exposure. This is going to be a big deal.
These drug companies are very big -- all in excess of $100 million in market capitalization. The advance of just a few of these in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has much more impact than moves by dozens of the smaller companies. If these can continue to move up as institutions put money to work, the benchmark index will be relentlessly dragged higher. And keep in mind that many of them pay fat annual dividends as well: 4.4% for Merck, 4.7% for Bristol, 5.3% for Lilly, 4% for Pfizer.