Can AbbVie Crush the Market in 2014?

AbbVie Inc. (ABBV) is a hot pharma stock.

Jan 8, 2014 at 3:25PM

With a whole heap of news flow in the pharmaceutical sector being directed at Colorado's first state-licensed marijuana industry, you could be forgiven for thinking that there aren't too many hot pharmaceutical stocks out there.

However, one company that should be in the news (maybe not ahead of marijuana -- because it is a big deal -- but certainly alongside it) is AbbVie (NYSE:ABBV). It contains a highly potent mixture of great returns and a stunning relative valuation compared to the S&P 500.

Let's kick off with the valuation first. AbbVie currently trades on a forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 15.8, with the S&P 500 trading on a forward P/E of 16.25. This puts AbbVie on a discount of more than 2.5% versus the wider index.

Is this discount justified? Seemingly not because AbbVie has a whole host of potential and is also delivering high returns for shareholders. Therefore, it could be argued that AbbVie deserves to trade on a substantial premium to the market, rather than a small discount.

On the topic of returns, AbbVie was able to generate a return on its total asset base of 19.5% in 2012. This is an extremely high figure and shows not only how profitable the company is but also the asset-light nature of its business model. Further evidence of this can be seen in the makeup of its asset base, with $8.4 billion of the $27 billion of total assets being intangible assets.

Indeed, the return on asset figure is so good that it's worth comparing it to some of AbbVie's rivals, which themselves are highly attractive companies at the moment.

For instance, GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) manages return on assets of 11.4% and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) is able to deliver a figure of 8.7%. Both of these numbers are very attractive on a stand-alone basis but are significantly less than the 19.5% achieved by AbbVie in 2012, which highlights just how profitable AbbVie is and how good a job current management is doing at wringing as much profit as possible out of the asset base.

In addition, both GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson have highly lucrative drug pipelines and research capabilities. However, Abbvie stands its ground in this space, too.

It is currently developing a wide range of treatments for a diverse group of illnesses and diseases, including hepatitis C, neuroscience, and oncology -- all of which are highly lucrative arenas for pharmaceutical companies to operate under.

Indeed, sector peer Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) has apparently developed a drug so effective at killing the disease that public health officials are considering whether it could eventually be eradicated. Although it is estimated to cost around $84,000 for a 12-week course of therapy, it has caused Gilead's share price to rocket as the market anticipates a successful launch.

Meanwhile, AbbVie seems to have a bright pipeline of drugs, with multiple drugs going through the FDA approval process. Such developments have the potential to deliver positive short- to medium-term news flow, as well as being the long-term drivers of share-price increases.

So, with a P/E ratio that currently sits 20% below the S&P 500 P/E ratio, a return on assets that beats highly profitable rivals such as GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, as well as an attractive drug pipeline, AbbVie appears to be a hot pharma stock.

Who needs to know about marijuana when you've got AbbVie? My sentiments exactly.

Here's another hot stock for 2014
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Fool contributor Peter Stephens owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences. It recommends and owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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