Pharma's Ugly Finances, Part II

by: Derek Lowe

Friday's post has brought in a lot of comments, and they're still piling up. I wanted to address a few of the more frequent ones, though, out here on the front page.

First off, the idea that a bunch of stock analysts could have a useful opinion on a pharma company's return on investment doesn't seem to strike many people as plausible. Variations on "What do they know about this business?" and "Aren't these the same geniuses that wiped out the mortgage bond market?" have come up numerous times. My answer to the latter is no, they aren't. The stock and industry analysts are a different bunch entirely. That's not to say that they can't be stupid, or make mistakes (they do!). But these aren't the people who thought that they had all the risks figured for interest-rate swaps and collateralized debt obligations. If you have disagreements with industry analysts, then you should fight in their territory.

There's more substance to the "What do they know" objection, but still (in my view) not enough. What they know is what's been made public, of course, and as we in the industry know, that's not everything. But that doesn't make Wall Street's case any weaker this time, as far as I can tell. Morgan Stanley and their ilk are not missing any of the successful projects from inside big pharma - those all get aired out thoroughly. If they're short on data, it's on how many projects fail, and how much they cost, and those numbers aren't going to make the ROI look any better. Meanwhile, most all the inlicensed compounds actually get announced, since they're material transactions for someone, so far fewer of those escape notice. I don't like the Morgan Stanley point of view, not at all, but dislike is not a refutation.

Another thing to remember is that the people with the best figures on ROI are the upper management of the companies involved, and these are the people who are slashing head count and outsourcing wherever they can. And we have to make a distinction here, between diagnosis and treatment. We can disagree on whether this is the proper response (although I'm kind of stuck for alternatives), but is it still possible to argue that these CEOs and the like are reacting to something that isn't there? Something is precipitating a lot of large, painful, and nasty decisions, and I think that it's probably the very concerns about cost that we've been talking about. We need to separate the argument about whether those figures are real from the argument about what's been done in response.