I'll also be asking whether these positive factors make Astra a good investment today.
AstraZeneca chief executive David Brennan was ousted last year. Major shareholders blamed him for failing to replenish the company's drugs pipeline during his six-year tenure and judged his one big acquisition -- biotech firm MedImmune for around 10 billion pounds -- an expensive failure.
New boss Pascal Soriot was poached from Swiss rival Roche Holding AG where he was chief operating officer of the pharmaceutical division. Prior to that Soriot led the successful merger of US biologics firm Genentech and Roche.
An industry veteran of 27 years, Soriot has the credentials to get Astra back on track. He's already shaken up senior management and begun a restructuring that could even get MedImmune delivering.
Astra has a policy of growing the annual dividend -- or, at a minimum, maintaining it -- and has delivered on the dividend over the past decade.
The company's aim is for the dividend to be twice covered by earnings, although this isn't an absolute restraint. In fact, the board has implied that in the next few years -- as the company transitions from declining revenues from expiring patents to new products coming on line -- cover may be lower in order to maintain the dividend.
At a current share price of 3,070 pence, analyst forecasts for 2013 give a juicy 5.8% yield.
Big pharma is a defensive sector, meaning it is less affected by economic conditions than cyclical sectors, such as construction and retail. Despite Astra's difficulties of recent years, its shares have continued to be less volatile than the market during periods of stress.
During the great bear market of 2007-09 when the FTSE 100 fell 48% -- and cyclical companies sank even further -- Astra's shares declined just 17%.
A good investment?
Clearly, Astra has issues that need to be resolved. If it didn't, you wouldn't be able to buy the shares on less than 10 times earnings and with a yield of 5.8%.
If Astra does negotiate the next couple of years successfully, investors should see a very good capital and income return from the present share price. The risk is that the recovery becomes protracted and produces a dividend cut into the bargain.
One renowned investor who is backing Astra to deliver on growth and income is ace City fund manager Neil Woodford.
Woodford, who has thrashed the FTSE 100 over the past five, 10 and 15 years with his 22 billion pound funds, has a proven knack of picking great dividend winners. Astra is the biggest holding in his funds.
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