Is Abbott Laboratories Headed for a Breakup?

Selling off non-core business has been all the rage in health care this year. Is Abbott Labs the next company to weigh a big sale in its quest for higher growth?

May 7, 2014 at 6:30PM

Dealing's back in style in health care's 2014.

From major drugmakers looking to sell off slow-growth assets to big pharma's top names hunting for blockbuster acquisitions, the year's been home to no shortage of activity on the mergers and acquisitions front. American drug giant Merck's (NYSE:MRK) been the latest to get in on this trend in 2014, selling off its consumer care business for more than $14 billion. Merck's also considering a sale of mature drugs that could be worth more than $15 billion -- part of a wave of companies, including diversified health-care titan Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT), considering selling off older or generic drugs in order to concentrate on high-growth segments.

But is Abbott Labs the company to watch as the flurry of health-care deals intensifies? Sources cited by Reuters indicate that Abbott's weighing the benefits of selling its growth-starved generics business in what could be the next big move in this hyperactive sector. But would such a deal be the best decision for investors?

Should Abbott sell off generics?
Generic drugs aren't known as major growth drivers, but sales from Abbott's generics haven't kept up with investor expectations as of late. In the first quarter, the company's established pharmaceuticals division saw sales fall of nearly 1%, trailing overall company revenue growth. That's not all: As Abbott only operates its generic drug business outside of the U.S., the recent strength of the dollar has taken a withering toll on this niche. When accounting for currency differences, Abbott's generics business saw sales decline 6.6% for the quarter. That came after last year's 3% revenue decline in the business, a fall that upset investors, as Reuters notes.

Abbott Hq
Abbott Labs's Illinois-based global headquarters. Source: Abbott Labs media library.

Granted, this business isn't the only one that struggled at Abbott in the first quarter. The company's leading niche by revenue, nutritionals, saw a 1.7% decline in year-over-year sales. However, much of that came from lingering after-effects of a nutritionals supplier recall. In the long run, nutritionals sales should harness the power of emerging markets to provide a growth engine for Abbott's future. Along with the company's surging diagnostics division, nutritionals make up a substantial portion of this company's best hopes for the long run.

The generics business does make up more than 20% of Abbott's overall revenue, but it's slowing down its potential -- and hopeful that its next-generation products such as the Absorb stent will reignite growth in its medical device division, Abbott's generics business is the lone long-term laggard in its portfolio. While Abbott's CEO has expressed optimism in the business' cash generation, the company's reportedly counseled with Morgan Stanley in searching for a sale of a business that earn Abbott more than $5 billion, according to some analysts.

That's a nice trade-off for getting rid of a portfolio that is a drag on revenue growth, but if the company is serious about a sale, would any big names be interested in buying?

Who makes the best bet?
Abbott could have some tough competition in finding a buyer. Merck's not the only big pharma giant in the hunt to sell off older, maturing drugs in the quest to hunker down on growth drivers. Fortunately for investors and corporations alike, however, the generics business' intensifying competition makes some of the industry's biggest names chomping at the bit for new acquisitions.

There might not be a hungrier buyer in the generics business than Teva Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:TEVA). Teva's seen growth drop off as of late, and while the company's pursued cost-cutting measures to keep its earnings on track, the generics giant's in hot pursuit of a big acquisition. The company posted strong domestic revenue growth in its most recent quarter, as Teva's U.S. generics sales jumped by 17%. However, the generic drugmaker's international sales have slumped in a big way, and Abbott's global focus in generics would inject some much-needed revenue power into Teva's portfolio. It'd also give some hope to investors, who have watched Teva's stock trail some of its top rivals over the past year.

TEVA Chart

TEVA data. Source: YCharts.

Teva's rival Mylan (NASDAQ:MYL) is right in the thick of things. Mylan's reeling after Swedish drugmaker Meda stiff armed the company's $6.7 billion buyout offer in late April, and now the generics giant's in need of a new acquisitions route. Company CEO Heather Bresch said recently that the company's searching in the vein of "several different assets" in regards to a deal, and Abbott's generics business could come with a lot cheaper price tag than the likes of Merck's. Mylan's in need of something, as some analysts have noted that the company itself could be in the targeting reticule of buyout-hungry giants. That's the kind of urgency that could make a sweet deal for Abbott and its investors. Considering that Mylan's also looking to expand its international presence, particularly in Europe, Abbott looks like a great fit.

Finally, don't count out Valeant Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:VRX). Valeant's made big news as of late in its partnership with activist investor Bill Ackman to buy drugmaker Allergan, a story that's led to an offer of more than $46 billion for the company. The deal's no sure thing for Valeant just yet, however, as Allergan's co-founder pushed back against the proposed deal in counsel to Allergan's board recently. If Valeant misses on Allergan, don't expect this company to sit still in the acquisitions rush -- and while Abbott's generics business would command far less money in a bid, it could emerge as part of a buyout blitz from Valeant to keep up with competitors.

Sellers' market for Abbott
Abbott's sale of its generics business is no sure thing itself, as the company's still weighing its options. However, with the growth outlook for its nutritionals, diagnostics, and even medical device businesses much stronger than its generic drug niche, Abbott could make good headway toward driving growth higher by selling off this weight. After all, there may be a number of suitors in health care's deal-happy 2014.

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Dan Carroll has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. It recommends and owns shares of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. 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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