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Investing, Stocks  | February 14, 2019


  • Most investors are only looking to own 20 to 50 stocks in their portfolios, meaning you have to be selective with what you buy.
  • Gilead Sciences is a pharma blue-chip with a relatively weak growth outlook that even from today's attractive valuation is likely to deliver merely bond like future returns.
  • In contrast, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are blue-chip SWANs with strong long-term cash flow and dividend runways and make far better buys today.
  • From today's prices, JNJ is fairly value and likely to deliver about 10% long-term total returns. Pfizer is about 9% undervalued and likely to earn 12% returns over the next five years.
  • That being said, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson still have their own risks that investors need to be comfortable with before buying them.

My new Deep Value Dividend Growth Portfolio or DVDGP (beating the market by 9% so far) owns 70 companies. However, that level of diversification isn't usually optimal for most investors who aren't professional analysts (I research over 200 companies per year for Simply Safe Dividends).

Rather most investors are better off owning 20 to 50 companies, depending on their ability to follow companies at least on a yearly basis (to make sure the bullish theses are intact).

Thus, when deciding what to own for your portfolio, opportunity cost is an important consideration. There are lots of quality dividend growth stocks out there, many that potentially offer generous, safe, and growing income, and some are even highly undervalued.

But you still have to be selective with where you invest your hard-earned money, which is why I can't recommend Gilead Sciences (GILD) today. Not when there are far better blue-chip pharma alternatives available like Pfizer (PFE) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ).

So, let's take a look at what my issues with Gilead are, why I consider Pfizer and JNJ superior choices for new money today, and also what risks potential investors have to keep in mind before adding either blue-chip to their portfolios.

Gilead Sciences: Struggling To Find A Pathway To Growth

Gilead Sciences, which was founded in 1987, has a great track record of making long-term investors very rich.

That's thanks to an innovative corporate culture that has historically focused on becoming dominant in one treatment field, and an executive team that's traditionally been packed to the rafters with PhDs.

Gilead's historic success is largely due to smart M&A including the $464 million 2003 purchase of Triangle Pharma, which gave it TAF drug Emtriva which it would combine with other drugs to create such blockbuster anti-retroviral HIV medications as Truvada (the only approved preventative treatment for HIV), Genvoya, Atripla, and Descovy.

In 2018, Gilead unveiled Biktarvy, the world's smallest single-pill HIV drug, which not only has the best viral resistance (0% according to trials) but is also much safer to use for patients with kidney and bone problems.

Thanks to its strong dedication to HIV R&D, today, Gilead is the world's undisputed master of HIV meds, which must be taken for life, and thus create a steady, recurring and high margin source of cash flow. In fact, in the US, Gilead's market share in HIV is 87%, and it's about 75% worldwide.

But given that it's hard to improve upon such dominant market share, Gilead needed a new growth engine, and in 2011, the company turned to another big M&A deal to break into the Hepatitis C market. That year, Gilead bought Pharmasset for $11 billion giving it the blockbuster drug Sovaldi. That drug became the basis for Harvoni, Epclusa, and Vosevi, which created a franchise that grossed nearly $60 billion in sales over the past five years.

That includes $19 billion in sales in 2015 alone, which helped Gilead temporarily enjoy free cash flow margins as high as 49% in recent years. But, of course, we all know the downside to HCV, which is that it's a "cure not treat" disease, and thus not a source of recurring revenue.

The one and done nature of HCV, when combined with AbbVie's (NYSE:ABBV) Mavyret winning 50% market share recently, has led to Gilead's HCV sales falling off a cliff and resulted in three straight years of falling sales and rapidly declining free cash flow (what pays the dividend).

In Q4 and full year 2018, HCV sales fell 51% and 60%, respectively.

That's thanks to a continued steady decline in new patient starts, ironically created by the success of its meds curing HCV patients and thus decreasing the total addressable market size. Those HCV headwinds are expected to continue with management now guiding for about $21.5 billion in 2019 sales (down about 3%) and representing the 4th straight year of declining revenue.

Speaking of management 2018 saw a major shakeup for Gilead, with the departure of its Chief Science Officer in April 2019, and then its Chief Medical Officer in September 2018 (after just five months on the job). The biggest change came when John Milligan, a 28-year company Veteran, stepped down as CEO in July.

Gilead has tapped Roche (OTCQX:RHHBY) CEO Daniel O'Day, to be its new CEO, because it's aiming to replicate Roche's success in oncology.

Oncology, immunology, and NASH (Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis) are the three growth areas that Gilead is now targeting. NASH is caused by obesity (a growing global epidemic) and is a potentially $18.3 billion untapped worldwide market.

Meanwhile, immunology and oncology are two large and fast-growing segments of the drug market and offer some of the highest margins as well. In total, Gilead's drug pipeline includes 29 drugs/indications that it hopes can eventually restore it to positive growth.

But here's the reason I can't recommend Gilead, despite its wise strategic shift towards oncology. Genvoya, Descovy, and Odefsey, Gilead's top HIV drugs, start to lose patent protection in 2021 and 2022 and have already lost it in Europe. Rising competition and falling sales are why Morningstar's Karen Andersen estimates that GILD's HIV franchise will peak at $18 billion in sales in 2020 ($15 billion today) and then start declining.

Selonsertib, Gilead's NASH drug (expected to launch in 2020), is expected to generate peak sales of about $2 billion, and only after several years of rampup. Yescarta, the company's fast-growing cancer drug, is estimated to have peak annual sales potential of $2-2.5 billion.

Both figures would make those drugs blockbuster successes BUT are also not enough to offset the expected declines in GILD's HIV sales. That's why analysts are currently anticipating about -2% and -4.5% sales and adjusted EPS growth, respectively, over the next five years.

Ultimately, I can't recommend buying a company that would likely require a major acquisition to get it back on the positive growth track. Not when there are so many other dividend-paying pharma blue-chips with stronger pipelines that are expected to drive strong sales growth in the coming years.

Note that Roche, where GILD's incoming CEO is from, is expected to see virtually no sales growth through 2024. Thus, even GILD's new leadership doesn't instill me with confidence that the company can turn around its falling returns on invested capital.

I generally like to see stable or rising ROIC over time, because that metric is a proxy for good long-term capital allocation. GILD's ROIC has fallen to the lowest levels in a decade and is now below the 24% achieved in 2013 before the launch of its blockbuster HCV drugs.

In contrast, both Pfizer and JNJ are fundamentally superior pharma blue-chips who lack the major growth problems that Gilead will be facing for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer: Short-Term Headwinds But Great Long-Term Prospects

Now, at first glance, Pfizer might seem like a strange recommendation from someone so focused on steady long-term growth and safe dividends.

That's becausePfizer is no stranger to patent cliffs and the $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth in 2009 (which led to a dividend cut) was driven by the 2011 loss of exclusivity on cholesterol drug Lipitor. Lipitor, at over $150 billion in total sales, remains the best selling drug in history.

In 2009, Lipitor sales ($11.4 billion) made up 23% of Pfizer's sales, and when it lost its patents on that drug in 2011, sales went off a cliff, much like GILD's HCV sales (59% decline in 2012). But today, Pfizer is a much more diversified company and its top drug seller, epilepsy medication Lyrica, makes up just 9% of sales. But it's true that Pfizer is facing a tough 2019 and 2020 because Lyrica is losing patent protection in mid-2019.

Pfizer expects falling Lyrica sales in 2019 to result in about a 1% and 4% decline in sales and adjusted EPS, respectively. However, according to Albert Bourla, Pfizer's new CEO mid-2020 will be an inflection point. That's because, as its CFO explained at its latest conference call, after 2021, Pfizer will face no major patent expirations for several years, clearing the road for what its CEO calls its "greatest pipeline ever" to restore strong growth in 2021 and beyond.

That pipeline consists of 100 drugs, including 37 in late-stage trials or better.

That includes up to 15 blockbusters expected to be approved by 2022 and drive at least $1 billion per year in sales. Like Gilead, Pfizer is focused mainly on oncology and immunology, but also in vaccines, which are expected to grow to a $44 billion market by 2024 according to EvaluatePharma.

Vaccines are a great business because, while lower margin than drugs, they tend to have stable sales even post patent expiration (because of much lower competition).

Meanwhile, Pfizer's blockbuster cancer drugs Ibrance (breast cancer) and Xtandi (prostate cancer) are scheduled to receive approval for several new indications in the next few years. The company's cardiovascular drug Eliquis and immunology drug Xeljanz are also expected to see strong growth, which combined with the company's Chinese generic/off-patent drug subsidiary, are expected to generate about 3% annual sales growth through 2021, even with weak growth in 2019 and 2020.

In fact, according to FactSet Research, analysts expect double-digit sales growth in 2021 and beyond to drive 6.3% CAGR adjusted EPS growth for Pfizer over the next five years.

Combined with the high margin nature of Pfizer's business, and FCF margins that are consistently near 30%, that should allow the company to continue rewarding investors with strong capital returns, which totaled $20.2 billion in dividends and buybacks in 2018 (though that was boosted a lot by tax reform last year).

And unlike Gilead, Pfizer's ROIC has been far more stable and in fact, rising since 2016 after its $14 billion acquisition of Medivation. That smart M&A deal gave it prostate cancer drug Xtandi, whose sales grew 20% in 2018 and which management thinks can eventually hit $1 billion in US sales alone.

For context, Xtandi's total global sales in 2018 were just $590 million.

The bottom line is that while all drug makers go through rough patches, with sales falling for a few years, compared to Gilead (which is expected to see eight straight years of revenue declines) Pfizer appears to have a far brighter future that should generate superior dividend growth and better total returns.

So, does Johnson & Johnson, which is not just a dividend king with 56 consecutive years of dividend hikes under its belt but is what I consider to be the safest medical company you can own.

Johnson & Johnson: The Safest Medical Company In The World

Johnson & Johnson was founded in 1885 and has grown to become the largest medical conglomerate on the planet, with more than 250 subsidiaries operating in over 60 countries.

Unlike pure-play biotech GILD, JNJ is highly diversified into not just patented drugs, but also consumer products and medical devices (Pfizer has a consumer products business it's considering selling).

  • Pharmaceuticals: 50% of 2018 sales growing at 12.4% in 2018
  • Medical devices: 33% of sales and growing at 1.5%
  • Consumer products: 17% of sales and growing at 1.8%

JNJ's diversification isn't just in what it sells, but where it sells it. 52% of sales are in the US, but 48% are international, including over 25% from emerging markets like Asia and Latin America, which saw 5.8% to 7.7% sales growth in 2018. That helped drive the company's international sales growth last year of 5.1% compared to just 1.5% in the US.

JNJ's consumer goods segment might not be as profitable as drugs (though thanks to strong economies of scale it enjoys about 23% operating margins). But those mega-brands it has like Tylenol and Listerine help to generate steady cash flow over time because even once patents expire, over-the-counter goods tend to hold up well even in the face of generic competition (store brands).

Meanwhile, the medical devices segment has been helped by smart acquisitions like the 2012 $21 billion (including debt) purchase of Synthes. That orthopedic device maker helped JNJ to expand into new global markets, including fast-growing emerging economies.

Today, JNJ is spending about $1.3 billion per year on medical device R&D to help it launch dozens of new products in the coming years.

  • 20 to 25 launches in 2019
  • 40 to 50 in 2020 and beyond

Those new product launches are expected to bring in about $7 billion per year in marginal sales, which is a 9% increase over 2018's revenues.

This highlights JNJ's major competitive advantage, which is one of the biggest R&D budgets on earth. That includes $8.4 billion in pharma spending alone in 2017 and $12.7 billion in total R&D expenditures over the past year.

For context, according to S&P Global, JNJ's R&D budget is the 5th largest of any US company's and the 8th largest in the world.

But more important than just spending a mountain of money on R&D is the fact that JNJ has a great track record of successfully bringing new drugs to market. That includes 14 blockbusters with $1+ billion in annual sales launched over the last seven years.

This has helped drive not just seven straight years of operational (same currency) drug sales growth but at double the average industry rate.

The company's drug pipeline (over 350 total R&D programs) includes 44 stage three trials for new drugs and indication expansions, focused on six major treatment areas including immunology and oncology (where GILD hopes to make a big splash). In 2019 alone, the company expects 31 major drugs/indication expansions to proceed to either the next stage of approval or receive final clearance for sale.

By 2021, JNJ expects its strong pipeline to generate an additional 14 blockbusters with annual sales (or extra sales) of $1 billion+ annually.

But while 50% of JNJ's pharma sales success is from organic R&D, the other half is from smart M&A. That includes the 2017 $30 billion purchase of Actelion, a leader in pulmonary hypertension. In 2018, pulmonary hypertension drugs contributed $2.5 billion to sales, but that deal also netted JNJ two blockbuster drugs.

  • Stelara: $5.2 billion in sales (up 28.5% YOY in 2018)
  • Zytiga: $3.5 billion in sales (up 39.6% YOY in 2018)

Those two drugs alone had 2018 sales that were double what GILD's Selonsertib and Yescarta are expected to generate at their peak... and they are still growing strongly. In total, JNJ expects Actelion to boost long-term sales and adjusted EPS growth by 1% and 1.75%, respectively.

Thanks to that great track record on high R&D spending and smart strategic acquisitions (over 100 companies in the past 20 years), today, JNJ has no less than 26 products generating at least $1 billion in annual sales. And some of those include drugs that are generating four or five times that.

Now, that's not to say that JNJ is going to have excellent growth every year, no drug maker can achieve that. For example, JNJ is expecting a combination of stronger generic competition (see risk section) plus weak drug prices to make for a rather lackluster 2019.

Here's what Alex Gorsky, its CEO told analysts at the latest conference call,

We are preparing to issue our 2018 transparency report in the next couple of months, but I can already tell you that in 2018, our net (drug) prices declined between 6% and 8%, and we look forward to providing more information when the report is released." - JNJ CEO (emphasis added)

In 2017, JNJ's net drug prices also fell (4.6%) showing that drug rebates that are so controversial (see risk section) are not always a boon to industry giants.

Yet despite these struggles (which most drug makers are facing, sometimes to a far greater degree) JNJ has managed to maintain gross margins of 68% or better over the last five years.

And thanks to its diversified product line, JNJ's sales growth has been among the most stable in its industry and puts Gilead to shame.

In fact, JNJ's overall profitability, including its ROIC, are among the best and most stable in the industry. That's a testament to smart capital allocation by management, as well as a corporate culture that's delivered an unbeatable track record of safe and rising dividends over time.

Thanks to an analyst consensus of 7.6% CAGR adjusted EPS and FCF growth over the next five years, that shareholder-friendly dividend growth policy is sure to continue. Note that while forecasting bottom line growth is always an educated guesstimate (especially in this industry) even Morningstar's more conservative analysts expect JNJ to deliver annualized earnings and cash flow growth of 8% through 2023.

That means 7% to 8% dividend hikes are likely in the cards for JNJ shareholders for the foreseeable future. The same can't be said for GILD, whose fast-rising FCF payout ratio (thanks to steadily shrinking cash flow) will force it to eventually grow its payout at a token rate (if it's able to grow at all).

But better top and bottom lines (and dividend growth) are far from the only reasons that Pfizer and JNJ are superior to Gilead. Those blue-chips are also likely to deliver far better total returns than GILD in the coming years.

Dividend Profile: Pfizer and JNJ Run Circles Around Gilead In Terms Of Return Potential

The primary thing that determines whether or not I can recommend a company is the dividend profile which consists of yield, safety, and long-term growth potential. Combined with valuation, this is what drives total returns over time, and thus my recommendations.

CompanyYieldTTM FCF Payout RatioSimply Safe Dividend Safety Score (Out Of 100)Five Year Forecast FCF Growth (Analyst Consensus)Expected Total Return (No Valuation Change)

Valuation-Adjusted Total Return Potential

Gilead3.7%37%83 (Very Safe)-4.5%-0.8%3.4%
Pfizer3.5%51%82 (Very Safe)6.3%9.8%11.9%
Johnson & Johnson2.7%51%99 (Very Safe)7.6%10.3%10.0%
S&P 5002.0%33%NA6.4%8.4%3% to 8.5%

All three pharma blue-chips offer superior yields to the broader market, though GILD's recent 10% dividend hike gives it the highest yield of all. More importantly, all three stocks have very safe dividends, courtesy of FCF payout ratios far below the 60% level that's considered safe for this industry.

The other half of the dividend safety formula is the balance sheet.

CompanyNet Debt/EBITDAInterest Coverage RatioS&P Credit RatingAverage Interest CostTTM ROIC
Johnson & Johnson0.754.0AAA3.3%22%
Safe Level3 or Less8 or MoreNANA8%

Here too, all three companies put in a strong showing, with GILD having nearly no net debt (cash minus debt), but PFE and JNJ sporting superior credit ratings and lower borrowing costs (far below their returns on invested capital).

This means that all three have strong financial flexibility when it comes to investing in future growth, including through strategic M&A that is the lifeblood of the pharma industry.

But when it comes to long-term dividend growth, which tracks FCF/share growth, here is where Gilead falls down... hard.

Given that -4.5% FCF/share growth forecast, GILD's shareholders can't expect much in the way of positive returns. In fact, if it weren't for GILD being so undervalued, shareholders might be looking at slightly negative total returns over the next five years.

In contrast Pfizer and JNJ, even with no changes in valuation, are likely to deliver double-digit total returns over the next five years, crushing the 3% to 8.5% most analysts expect from the S&P 500. Mind you, thanks to a potentially strong valuation boost (that's far from guaranteed given its growth troubles), GILD might also beat the market or at least match it despite bond like total return potential of 3.4%.

That's purely due to GILD's low valuation, which makes it, theoretically at least, the best value stock of the three.

Valuation: Gilead Is The Better Bargain, But Pfizer And JNJ Are Actually Better Buys Today

With three straight years of negative growth, it's not surprising that GILD has been the worst performing of these three stocks over the past year. But with the company now trading at 10.2 times forward earnings, some value investors are understandably interested in buying it.

Normally, I evaluate a dividend stock using dividend yield theory (beating the market since 1966). But with GILD's growth troubles shattering its normally strong growth record, in this case, I'm using Morningstar's conservative three-stage discounted cash flow or DCF model to compare the three companies.

CompanyMorningstar Fair Value EstimateDiscount To Fair ValueUpside To Fair ValueLong-Term Valuation Boost

Valuation-Adjusted Total Return Potential

Johnson & Johnson$130-2%-1.5%-0.3%10.0%

Morningstar's pharmacy analysts are not just purely focused on the fundamentals and use conservative growth estimates but have what I consider to be solid industry expertise that can account for the numerous risks all drug makers face.

In this case, even with negative growth expected over the next half decade, Morningstar agrees that Gilead is the most undervalued of these three pharma companies. Pfizer is also trading at an attractive valuation, while JNJ is about fairly valued.

Thanks to that undervaluation, GILD could potentially rise by 23% over the coming five years, which would be enough to offset its declining bottom line when combined with its safe and rising dividend. Thus, it's not necessarily a horrible investment (thus no sell rating from me) but 3.4% returns (margin of error 20%) is simply too low for me to recommend.

That's despite GILD's 19% margin of safety ranking it high on my personal valuation scale for blue-chip companies. In other words, in isolation, GILD is potentially an attractive short-term capital gains play.

But for long-term income growth investors looking to buy and hold the best dividend growth opportunities in this industry? Pfizer and JNJ are far better places for new money today, and I consider them solid "buys". That is, of course, if you're comfortable with their risk profile (and that of the pharma industry, in general).

Risks To Consider

While I consider both Pfizer and JNJ to be great long-term dividend choices for conservative investors (low-risk SWANs), there are always challenges for any company, and these two blue-chips are no different.

Let's start with dividend king JNJ. Like all drugmakers, Johnson & Johnson's drug business faces a cyclical hamster wheel of patent expirations that can weight on short-term growth and result in lumpy sales in any given year.

Remicade is the biggest issue for JNJ right now, having lost patent protection in the US last year, which is why sales declined 15.7% in 2018 to $5.3 billion. At 6.5% of company revenue, Remicade's declining sales will drag on 2019 growth (as will an expected $1.2 billion in negative currency headwinds this year).

Thus, for 2019, JNJ isn't expecting strong growth and is guiding for about a 1% sales decline and 5% adjusted EPS growth. Remember that the timing of new drug launches/indication expansions, combined with currency shifts, can make growth lumpy over time. In the case of JNJ, investors can likely expect a modest 5% dividend boost this year.

The other big risk many are worried about with JNJ right now is litigation expenses. Like all pharma stocks, JNJ's legal department is always busy dealing with numerous lawsuits over its products, including:

  • Risperdal (a neurological drug)
  • Talcum powder (respiratory issues)
  • Surgical mesh products
  • Metal-on-metal hip and knee implants
  • Several consumer product recalls (over 45 million products recalled between 2008 and 2011)

The biggest headache the company is now facing is nearly 12,000 lawsuits over talcum powder, specifically claims it contained asbestos and caused ovarian cancer.

In December, a Reuter's article came out claiming that JNJ knew that its product was unsafe, which caused the stock to crash 10% in a single day. JNJ pointed out in its response that over the decades, thousands of tests, including by the FDA, independent labs and research universities, have shown that JNJ talcum powder doesn't contain asbestos nor causes ovarian cancer.

But that doesn't stop juries from "sticking it to big pharma" like when JNJ was ordered to pay $4.7 billion to 22 women after losing a class action lawsuit. JNJ has always won those cases on appeal, BUT the headline itself helped increase the number of such cases resulting in about $1.1 billion in legal expenses in Q4 2018.

Given the costs of fighting these cases, it's likely that JNJ will have to eventually settle them, despite the science being firmly on its side. The biggest legal settlement for a drug maker to date was $3 billion paid by Glaxo (NYSE:GSK) in 2012 over an antidepressant that was marketed before receiving FDA approval.

What would a similar settlement mean for JNJ investors? Well, Morningstar's Damien Conover estimates that JNJ will end up settling the talcum cases for a far less frightening $2 billion. But even if the figure is double that, a record-breaking $4 billion, JNJ's $19.7 billion in cash on the balance sheet will NOT mean a big hit to the company's growth plans nor affect its dividend safety. Of course, it might cause the stock to drop sharply on the day of its announcement which shows the headline risk associated with owning any pharma stock.

As for Pfizer, it too faces various legal risks, as well as the standard complex risk profile for the industry, which is the most M&A-heavy on Wall Street. According to the Harvard Business Review, about 80% of M&A deals fail to deliver long-term shareholder value.

Drug company acquisitions are even more challenging to pull off well due to the risk of overpaying for a drug pipeline with uncertain approval outcomes, future growth sales that are merely educated guesstimates, and the fact that synergistic cost savings are far from guaranteed to materialize.

What's more, Pfizer, like all drug companies, faces plenty of regulatory risks. On January 31st, the US Department of Health and Human Services proposed possibly eliminating drug rebates (which average 26% to 30%) between drug makers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), Part D plans and Medicaid managed care organizations.

While such rebates are not something drug companies like (JNJ has now faced at least two straight years of declining net drug prices for example), bundling such rebates across several medications does make for preferential treatment on drug formularies. This, in turn, can slow the rate at which drug sales fall after generic or biosimilar competition hits the market. If this regulation is adopted (far from certain), then all drug makers might face even more trouble achieving steady cash flow growth in the future.

And of course, we can't forget the biggest regulatory risk of all, a shift to single payer healthcare. Bernie Sanders made this one of the core planks of his 2016 presidential campaign, and today, most of the 2020 Democratic Presidential hopefuls endorse the idea of "Medicare-for-All".

While even a 2020 election win might not see this policy enacted (due to a Senate's 60 vote filibuster hurdle) should we ever see single payer in the US, then it might be a game-changing negative for the drug industry. That's because bulk drug purchases (and outright price controls) are common in other nations with single payer systems (or hybrid systems that include universal coverage).

This is why all global drug giants count on the US's high prices to allow them to earn high margins and recoup costly R&D expenses that the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimates costs on average $2.9 billion per drug, including post-approval safety monitoring. Even accounting for joint ventures, Morningstar estimates the cost of simply getting a new drug to market (and ignoring safety monitoring costs) at about $800 million per company.

Basically, anyone owning any medical company, but especially drug makers, needs to always keep in mind these major regulatory risks.

Bottom Line: Gilead's Growth Outlook Is Too Poor To Recommend It While Pfizer And JNJ Are Excellent Pharma Blue-Chips Worth Buying Today

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Gilead is a horrible company, nor that you should necessarily sell it and definitely not short it (it's arguably undervalued and could appreciate significantly in a short amount of time). In the fast-changing world of pharma, Gilead's mountain of cash means it could potentially make a game-changing acquisition that could drastically improve its future growth trajectory.

However, pharma is an industry with a complex risk profile, including patent cliffs, legislative/regulatory risk, and frequent legal battles. Add to that the hamster wheel like nature of this business, where steady growth is hard to come by, and I prefer to recommend companies with clear growth paths and proven management teams with track records of delivering at least steady if not improving ROICs over time.

Gilead's new management team could very well turn things around, but Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson offer income investors solidly market-beating total return potential without the need for a high-risk acquisition.

Each company has a diversified drug portfolio and strong development pipelines that are likely to deliver about 6% to 8% FCF/share growth in the coming five years. That may be weighted towards 2021 and later for the most part. However, in the meantime, you get a safe and growing dividend to reward you for your patience.

In contrast, Gilead's current growth outlook remains one of the weaker ones among pharma blue-chips, and while its attractive valuation (on a DCF basis) might make it appear like a good contrarian play, I only expect it to deliver bond-like returns in the coming years.

While pharma, in general, isn't for everyone, if you are looking for exposure to the industry, then I consider Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to be solid "buys" right now while Gilead is a "hold" until I become confident that management can return the company to solid FCF/share growth.

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