AstraZeneca's Trying to Get Healthier

Like competitors Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) and Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) , AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN  ) has found itself in a restructuring mode lately. It's trying to reduce costs in response to the introduction of generic equivalents to some of its top drugs, and it's settling in after its $15 billion purchase of MedImmune last year.

Getting in on the earnings action yesterday, AstraZeneca gave us some indication of how its adjustments are shaking out. Excluding the seven months of financial contributions from MedImmune, sales rose 4% for the year on a constant currency basis. Operating cash flow, meanwhile, was flat versus 2006, and earnings came in at $4.20 a share, excluding restructuring expenses.

The big event at AstraZeneca last year was the MedImmune purchase and the resulting push into biologics. AstraZeneca needed to strike a deal to make up for poor progress on its own pipeline over the previous two years. It had suffered late-stage clinical trial failures from partners AtheroGenics (Nasdaq: AGIX  ) and Renovis (Nasdaq: RNVS  ) , just to name a few rough spots.

In 2008, AstraZeneca expects to turn around its poor pipeline performance and produce marketing applications for as many as three new compounds, including diabetes DPP-IV inhibitor treatment saxagliptin. AstraZeneca acquired co-marketing rights to that compound last year from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) , and a new drug application with the FDA is expected in the middle of the year. Beyond that drug, AstraZeneca aims to bring an average of two new compounds to the market from 2010 onward.

Even with the possibility of a saxagliptin approval on the horizon, though, AstraZeneca is one of the least compelling large-cap pharmas as a prospective investment. This year's guidance calls for sales growth in the low to mid-single digits, even including the extra months of MedImmune contributions in the financials. The pipeline as a whole isn't anything to get excited about. The company's marketed compounds face stiff generic or branded competition, either directly or indirectly, and aside from Crestor, they aren't growing especially well. Shares aren't trading at a discount, the way that shares of many of its large pharma peers are, and other drugmakers can match or surpass its 4.6% dividend yield. It might be best to pass this stock by for now.


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