(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Slimming down appears to be paying off for Novartis AG.
CEO Vas Narasimhan has refocused the Swiss pharma giant around drugs by selling off eye-care business Alcon and its remaining consumer-health interests. Second-quarter earnings that beat Wall Street expectations Thursday and a big guidance boost showed the benefits of the strategy. Shares hit an all-time high in early trading even though the stock was already up over 20% year to date to that point and trades at a premium to peers.
Novartis is benefiting from greater exposure to its drug business, which has more potential than the units it ditched. Simpler businesses are easier to understand and value, so it makes sense that the market has responded well to these moves. At this price, though, the strategy inherently exposes investors to more downside and volatility.
The reason some drugmakers diversify is to add steadier revenue so they can better weather the booms, busts, and worrying product concentration that come with developing novel medicines. Novartis has a robust set of newer drugs, which is likely why it felt confident enough to get rid of other units. It has supplemented its arsenal further with a series of acquisitions as it continues its strategy by slimming down generic unit Sandoz.
Psoriasis drug Cosentyx and heart medicine Entresto are the two drugs most key to the company’s near-term success. They helped drive the pharma unit’s 9 percent sales growth in the second quarter relative to the same period last year. There are high expectations for continuing growth, but they come with significant risks.
A new rival from AbbVie Inc. recently entered the already crowded market Cosentyx competes in, and others are on the way. While Entresto has turned from a slow starter to a growing success story, a big chunk of its potential depends on expanding to new markets. Results are due from a late-stage trial in a new indication in the next few months. Positive indications will help justify the company’s current valuation. A failure could bring current momentum for the drug and Novartis’s more exposed stock screeching to a halt.
Also, growth may not look as robust when sales begin to decline for two other blockbusters – cancer drug Afinitor and multiple sclerosis medicine Gilenya – in the next few years. That puts weight on the company’s most recent launches and pipeline. Those new products may be able to bear it; the company had a breast cancer drug, an MS medicine, and a groundbreaking gene therapy approved in the first half of the year. Late-stage data is due in the near term for potential blockbuster asthma and eye drugs as well as another MS drug. Still, weak launches or disappointing data could erode confidence in the company’s growth trajectory.
Novartis executed its transition to a pure pharma firm well. There’s still a chance that the rapturous investor response is in part a sugar high.
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Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.
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