AstraZeneca: Buy, Sell Or Hold?

LONDON -- I'm always searching for shares that can help ordinary investors like you make money from the stock market.

Right now I am trawling through the FTSE 100 and giving my verdict on every member of the blue-chip index.

I hope to pinpoint the very best buying opportunities in today's uncertain market, as well as highlight those shares I feel you should continue to hold... and those I feel you should sell!

I'm assessing every share on five different measures. Here's what I'm looking for in each company:

1. Financial Strength: low levels of debt and other liabilities.

2. Profitability: consistent earnings and high profit margins.

3. Management: competent executives creating shareholder value.

4. Long-term prospects: a solid competitive position and respectable growth prospects.

5. Valuation: an underrated share price.

A look at AstraZeneca
Today I'm evaluating AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN.L  ) (NYSE: AZN  ) , one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world with a market cap of 38 billion pounds, which currently trades at 2,992 pence. Here are my thoughts:

1. Financial Strength: AstraZeneca has a strong balance sheet and robust cash flows. Total debt net of cash is only 16% of total assets, while operating profit is a hefty 26 times interest expense. Furthermore, free cash flow as a percentage of revenues has averaged a super 18% during the last 10 years.

2. Profitability: AstraZeneca has been a model of consistency and profitability. During the last decade, revenues have increased by an average of 8% a year from 11 billion pounds to 21 billion pounds, while margins have expanded to beyond 30% and have never fallen below 20%. In addition, earnings per share have compounded at a 17% annual average, while the firm's average return on equity has been 33% per year.

However, revenues from the U.S. and Western Europe were down by 2% and 11%, respectively in 2011. This setback was partially offset by a 10% increase to revenues from emerging markets. What's more, results for the first half of this year disappointed, with earnings dropping 15% to 14 billion pounds.

3. Management: Management has consistently delivered rising dividends -- the payout has compounded at 15% per annum for the past 10 years. The company has also bought back 24% of its shares since 2003, with the share count reduced from 1.7 billion to 1.3 billion. Admittedly, leadership is now in a state of flux with CEO David Brennan abruptly retiring this year after disappointing first-quarter results. Current CFO Simon Lowth is now acting CEO.

4. Long-term prospects: Patent protection for three of Astra's best-selling treatments -- Nexium, Seroquel IR and Crestor -- is set to expire during the next four years. These products make up around 40% of AstraZeneca's revenues. With a weak pipeline of products, replacing the revenue contribution of these "expiring" treatments will be difficult. Meanwhile, margins are under pressure from greater regulation and governments around the world tightening their spending on health care.

5. Valuation: AstraZeneca is currently trading at only 6 times earnings and gives an above-average yield of 6%.

My verdict on AstraZeneca
AstraZeneca indeed faces a tough road ahead. However, at its current price, the market is assigning little or no value at all to its:

1. Current products: Some of the company's key treatments will lose patent protection only in 2014-2016 and some earlier "expired" products have retained market share.

2. Pipeline: The company is developing a number of treatments that have multibillion-dollar potential.

3. Growing presence in emerging markets: Revenues from emerging markets have been increasing (10% in 2011). In addition, the company has initiated a cost-cutting program that will save it 4 billion pounds annually.

AstraZeneca is trading at the lower range of its 10-year P/E average. For investors who are patient and are willing to take on a modicum of risk, AstraZeneca offers an attractive yield and a potential for double-digit returns.

So overall, I believe AstraZeneca at 2,992 pence looks like a buy.

More FTSE opportunities

Alongside AstraZeneca, I am also positive on the blue chips highlighted in "The Market's Top Sectors". This special report sees three Motley Fool Share Advisor analysts each studying a favorable industry -- and spotlighting a particular share to consider for this year and beyond.

Various opportunities are covered in the report. One might provide "solid returns and... nice dividends", another could offer "global diversification and long-term growth potential", while a third looks a "high-quality business" from a battered sector.

You can read "The Market's Top Sectors" today by requesting the report for free. But hurry, the report is available for a limited time only.

In the meantime, please stay tuned for my next verdict on a FTSE 100 share.

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Further Motley Fool investment opportunities

Zarr does not own shares in AstraZeneca. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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