A while back, Pharmalyst had argued the case for big pharma to take on more debt. Today, FT.com reports that private equity groups now have their eyes on the pharma sector. The article quotes a leading industry consultant who states that these groups "are in discussions that could lead to the takeover of a large quoted drug company". He further revealed that "there was discussion about how to sell the research functions of pharmaceutical groups, boost their sales and efficiency, gear them up and run them for cash".
If so, this is very interesting news. So far most of the private equity interest has been in the generics sector where the risks of new drug discovery & development are non-existent and the cash flows very predictable. However, after years of treading water, perhaps big pharma investors and these private equity groups are taking a second look.
One way to make sense of a private equity deal for a research-based big pharma is to spin off parts that are less risky and have predicable cash flows. Take for instance GSK. Even if one ignores the consumer health biz, they sell nearly 50 products. Out of the 23.2 billion pounds of 06 revenues, roughly 20 billion came from the pharma biz (rest from consumer health. See here.). The top ten drugs (such as Avandia and Advair) accounted for almost 10 billion implying that the 40 or so smaller products almost generated 10 billion. Arguably not much research or new risky development work is going on for many of these smaller products and they generate very predictable cash flows.
Unlike GSK's consumer health biz, these 'boring' products will not have much of a strategic fit with other buyers like a P&G & so would be ideal candidates for a private equity shop to take over. These private equity firms could really pay a premium to current GSK shareholders, load up the spun off company with debt, cut the fat and almost run it like a utility company. They could then use the strong cash flows to pay off debt. Of course even half of GSK's pharma biz is probably still too big for the private equity players to do a club deal....they probably are looking at a player much smaller than GSK. Also while with the sub prime & other issues while floating debt may have become difficult, looks like AZ was able to issue $9 billion worth of bonds last week. Interesting times ahead indeed!