The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) was down 86 points as of 12:30 p.m. EDT. The most recent numbers on international trade as of March just came in; due to the differences between the Commerce Department's initial assumptions about trade data and the actual figures, many analysts reduced their estimates of final first-quarter U.S. GDP downward. With a range of -0.2% to -0.8% comparing unfavorably to the government's preliminary figure of +0.2%, the big question remains whether the economic hit was temporary due to the weather or symptomatic of longer-term issues. Leading the Dow downward this afternoon were Merck (NYSE: MRK ) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) , while energy stocks were relatively strong.
Merck dropped more than 2% after the drugmaker announced that it would sell its consumer drug division to Germany's Bayer for $14.2 billion in cash. The move is consistent with Merck's overall strategic direction in narrowing its scope to emphasize its prescription pharmaceutical division and vaccine production, which have been far more lucrative areas for the pharma industry and have much greater growth prospects. Shareholders should get roughly half of the proceeds from the sale in the form of stock buybacks, while Merck plans to spend the other half on research and development or on making acquisitions to bolster its pipeline prospects. Yet even though Merck also said that its MK-3475 advanced melanoma treatment received priority review designation, investors didn't respond favorably in the short term to the news, suggesting that shareholders want even more dramatic strategic moves in order to send the stock higher after good gains so far in 2014.
Pfizer fell 1.4% as the company continues to wrangle with its own merger and acquisition plans. So far, buyout target AstraZeneca has shown no signs of going down without a fight, with the British company arguing now that its long-term prospects are good and that shareholders should remain patient with the existing corporate structure rather than letting Pfizer reap the benefits with an opportunistic takeover bid. Pfizer shareholders initially liked the idea of a combination, but as it becomes clear that even a successful bid won't necessarily lead to a smooth transition, investors appear to be cooling to the idea. At this point, it's unclear what would persuade AstraZeneca to accept a bid, and that uncertainty isn't making Pfizer shareholders happy -- especially with so much in cost savings and tax benefits at stake.
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