CVS Health (NYSE:CVS) is an organization that should do well in any part of the economic cycle, since we all need medicine and healthcare products from time to time. So on paper, CVS stock has similar characteristics to Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG).
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But unlike those latter names, CVS and other retail pharmacy stocks have not done well over the past few years. Since August 2015, CVS has dropped over 50%. Even worse, the owners of CVS stock have nothing on the horizon to cheer about, and CVS has tumbled 20% since January.
Confronting retail pharmacy stocks, including CVS, is a double whammy of potentially crippling headwinds. First, the retail pharmacy giant must address political and public anger against rising healthcare costs. After embarrassing controversies such as the “pharma bro” scandal, the American electorate will make this a pivotal issue next year.
Not only that, but political momentum appears to be moving further against retail pharmacy stocks. That’s troubling for the owners of CVS stock. Specifically, popular presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders have supported initiatives like the “Medicare for All Act.” Rising stars like Democratic and economic firebrand Andrew Yang are guaranteed to make “Medicare for All” a political talking point.
That is already a huge problem for retail pharmacy stocks. But the other dark cloud impacting CVS stock is competition. I’m not just talking about individual players in a hurting sector cutting each others’ throats. Rather, I’m calling out the giant gorilla in the room: Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN).
I love Amazon because it’s an unrivaled American success story. But let’s also be honest: Amazon’s success has come at the expense of other American businesses. Now that AMZN has its eyes on retail pharmacy, it’s no wonder why CVS stock is so volatile.
Threats Rattle CVS, But They Won’t Be Fatal
No matter how you look at it, CVS stock is incredibly risky. Unfortunately, recent developments have put more pressure on CVS. But as bad as things have gotten, the headwinds facing CVS stock are not completely devastating.
While the political noose appears to be tightening its grip on CVS, this dynamic also offers opportunity. Sure, CVS and other pharmacy stocks probably won’t benefit anymore from overpriced prescription medicine. However, if the Democrats take over the White House next year – and that’s a real possibility – millions of underserved Americans will have access to quality healthcare insurance.
These Democratic policies will cause many Americans who are buying drugs in foreign countries to obtain them in the U.S. instead.
Earlier this year, NPR highlighted the case of Michelle Fenner. Doctors diagnosed her son with Type 1 diabetes almost a decade ago, meaning he requires daily insulin shots to live. Last year, a three-month supply of insulin rose to $3,700.
In Tijuana, Mexico, however, Fenner only has to pay an amazingly low $600. Such extraordinary discounts have inspired up to 320,000 Americans to travel abroad for healthcare reasons each year. Therefore, cost-cutting measures may initially hurt the profit margins of retail pharmacy stocks. But at the same time, the retailers would also capture revenue that previously went to foreign countries.
That’s not all. According to Harvard Health Publishing, millions of Americans skimp on medication because of their exorbitant costs. Again, a cap on costs would initially hurt the profit margins of pharmaceutical retailers. But in the long run, pharmacy retailers will obtain revenue from new sources, boosting CVS stock.
Amazon Can’t Quite Disrupt CVS
As I mentioned earlier, disruptive competition presents a serious threat to CVS stock. Amazon succeeded in disrupting multiple retail segments. Therefore, it’s only natural to assume that AMZN will also cripple CVS.
However, pharmacy retail is unlike other retail categories because consumers often need their medication right way. For instance, if someone has an especially explosive case of diarrhea, he’s not going to wait three to five business days for a treatment to be shipped to him. Instead, he needs relief right away.
As a result, I think Amazon’s overall impact on pharmacies will be similar to its impact on the home-improvement sector. Home Depot (NYSE:HD) must contend with competition from the e-commerce giant. However, traditional brick-and-mortar locations serve consumers looking for home-improvement products well. They get what they want, when they want it. That attribute is much more important for people who need drugs.
Having said all that, I’m not entirely gung-ho on CVS stock. The underlying company has a huge debt load. Moreover, it has struggled to adapt to its industry’s changing landscape.
But it’s also very possible that, in the wake of the decline of CVS stock, the bad news is already reflected in the shares. Once investors realize that the bad news isn’t all that terrible, CVS could rally, at least for awhile.
As of this writing, Josh Enomoto did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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