Better Buy: Pfizer Inc. vs. AbbVie Inc.

These two big pharma stocks have a lot in common, but which is the better stock pick right now?

Cory Renauer
Cory Renauer
Jun 20, 2017 at 7:11AM
Health Care

When it comes to drugmaker dividends, Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) and AbbVie Inc. (NYSE:ABBV) stand out with higher-than-average yields. Of course, when shopping for pharmaceutical stocks, it pays to treat above-average yields with suspicion.

To see which of these big pharma stocks is the better pick right now, we'll look beyond their dividends. Major revenue streams for both are under threat for various reasons, but they also have exciting new drugs that could more than offset the imminent losses. Let's look at some of the different moving pieces to see which one comes out on top.  

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The shifting sands beneath Pfizer Inc.

The worst patent losses are in the rear view, but the threat of generic competition continues to hound the company. Pfizer's second-largest revenue stream, Lyrica, will probably begin to dry up after its basic U.S. patent expires next year. Sales of the nerve pain reliever accounted for about 10% of total revenue in the first quarter.

Pfizer's best-selling product at the moment has become a victim of its own success. It seems the population of older adults the Prevnar vaccine was aimed at has reached a saturation point. The pneumonia-preventing vaccine was still the company's best-selling drug in the first quarter, but sales slid about 8% lower than the same period last year to an annualized run rate of $5.6 billion.

Luckily for Pfizer, a couple recently launched cancer therapies could offset the losses. Ibrance has quickly become a popular breast cancer treatment since its launch in early 2015. First-quarter sales of the oral therapy jumped 58% over the prior-year period to a $2.7 billion run rate, and are poised to keep climbing. This March, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed its previous conditional approval and expanded the range of anti-hormonal treatments oncologists can use in concert with the drug.

More recently, Pfizer became the fourth company with an approved anti-PD(L)1 cancer immunotherapy. Marketed in partnership with Germany's Merck KGaA, Bavencio inhibits cancer cells from exploiting the same immune attack shutoff switch as Keytruda and Opdivo. Both immunotherapies quickly crossed the $1 billion annual sales threshold, and Bavencio is widely expected to follow in their footsteps.

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Image source: Getty Images.

AbbVie Inc.'s ticking time bomb

Pfizer's Lyrica headache pales in comparison to AbbVie's exclusivity issues. In the first quarter, Humira sales of about $4.1 billion comprised 63% of total revenue for the period. AbbVie insists its stack of Humira-related patents should prevent copycat versions from pressuring U.S. sales until 2022, but investors have plenty of reasons to be nervous. Last year, the FDA approved Amgen's biosimilar version of the aging anti-inflammatory treatment, and more recently Coherus BioSciences received a favorable verdict that could help it shorten the timeline for its version of the world's best-selling drug.

If AbbVie's intellectual property portfolio indeed allows Humira sales to remain stable for another five years, its shareholders will have plenty to smile about. The company has used the massive cash flows Humira generates to bulk up its product offerings and clinical development pipeline.

In 2015, the company snapped up rights to roughly half of Imbruvica sales, which rose 45% to a $2.2 billion run rate based on first-quarter sales. The oral blood-cancer treatment is the first chemo-free option for the most common form of leukemia, and AbbVie's share of its annual sales could reach the $5 billion mark.

Further ahead, AbbVie has an anti-inflammatory candidate that could also go a long way toward offsetting impending Humira losses. Upadacitinib, formerly ABT-494, is an orally administered Janus kinase blocker of the same class as baricitinib from Eli Lilly and Incyte. The experimental therapy recently beat the pants off a placebo as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and the company intends to submit applications for its approval next year. Following the FDA's recent rejection of baricitinib, annual upadacitinib sales are expected to top out at around $3.5 billion. 

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Running the numbers

Recently, AbbVie and Pfizer have been trading at 12.7 and 12.9 times this year's earnings estimates, respectively. That's far below the average stock in the benchmark S&P 500 Index, which currently trades at 19.0 times forward earnings estimates.

Both dividend-paying big pharma stocks also offer above-average yields. At recent prices, Pfizer shares offer 3.9%, which is a bit higher than the 3.6% you'd see from AbbVie. 

Pfizer's dividend also has a leg up on AbbVie's in terms of sustainability. Pfizer used about 54% of free cash flow to make the past four quarterly payments, which was about 4% less than AbbVie needed. Add these slight advantages to Pfizer's more diversified revenue stream and it looks like the bigger pharma is the better buy right now.