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3 Best Big Pharma Stocks to Buy for 2018

By Keith Speights - Jan 2, 2018 at 8:18AM

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These big pharma stocks stand out head and shoulders above the rest.

If you're expecting massive revenue growth for 2018 among big pharma stocks, think again. Despite hot new drugs for several major drugmakers, many of them also will likely be held back by declining sales for older drugs. Wall Street only expects low single-digit percentage revenue growth next year for most big pharma stocks. That doesn't mean, of course, that these companies won't see solid earnings growth, especially with new corporate tax rates in effect.

Still, though, several big pharma stocks should enjoy solid revenue and earnings growth in 2018. Here's why Johnson & Johnson (JNJ -0.89%), AbbVie (ABBV -0.47%), and Celgene (CELG) appear to be the best big pharma stocks to buy for 2018. 

2018 with line going up over wooden blocks

Image source: Getty Images.

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is on track to generate revenue topping $75 billion this year. The consensus among Wall Street analysts is that the healthcare giant will make close to $81 billion in 2018. Achieving that level would give J&J year-over-year sales growth of somewhere between 5% and 7.5%, depending on the company's 2017 fourth-quarter performance. Even the low end of that range would easily exceed J&J's expected 2017 total sales growth of 4.3%. And remember, the big pharma stock finished the year up 21% -- better than the S&P 500 index's tremendous performance.

The keys to Johnson & Johnson's success in 2017 will likely remain the primary drivers for the stock in the new year. At the top of the list are acquisitions. J&J's $30 billion buyout of Actelion completed in June should continue to deliver benefits for the company throughout 2018. Momentum for fast-growing drugs including Darzalex and Imbruvica will also almost certainly be enormously important for the stock's momentum.

Perhaps the biggest question for Johnson & Johnson will be how well it can continue to defend Remicade. Sales for the autoimmune disease drug fell 9% in the first three quarters of 2017 compared to the prior-year period. Pfizer could take even more market share away in 2018 with its biosimilar to Remicade. Despite this threat, though, I still view J&J as a top big pharma stock to buy, with solid overall growth prospects and a nice dividend yielding close to 2.4%.

AbbVie

AbbVie posted its best year ever in 2017, with the stock soaring more than 54%. Analysts expect more good news from the company this year: AbbVie is projected to generate revenue in 2018 of nearly $31 billion, a year-over-year increase of almost 11%.

Humira appears on course to keep rolling this year. I think the world's top-selling drug will stay No. 1 in 2018 with sales near $20 billion. And Imbruvica will add even more to AbbVie's coffers over the next 12 months than it does for the company's commercialization partner, J&J. Success for these two drugs alone should portend good things for AbbVie this year. However, there's even more potential good news on the horizon.

AbbVie could have three additional future blockbusters in its lineup in 2018. The company won approval earlier this year for hepatitis C drug Mavyret. AbbVie hopes for Food and Drug Administration approval of its endometriosis drug elagolix in the second quarter of 2018. If late-stage clinical study results are positive, the drugmaker could also launch Rova-T as a third-line treatment for small cell lung cancer in late 2018.

Celgene

While AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson turned in impressive performances in 2017, Celgene stock dropped nearly 10% this year. I expect much better results for Celgene this year. Wall Street does, too, with the consensus targets calling for revenue to increase by more than 14% and earnings to jump more than 19%. 

Celgene's top drug, Revlimid, should generate sales topping $9 billion in 2018. Although the company experienced a setback recently with a combination of Revlimid and Rituxan failing to prove superior to a combo of Rituxan and chemotherapy in treating follicular lymphoma, I don't expect Revlimid's sales momentum to be derailed. In addition, Celgene's other blood-cancer blockbuster, Pomalyst, continues to enjoy strong sales growth. 

Probably the biggest story for Celgene in 2018, though, will be ozanimod. The company anticipates FDA approval for the drug in treating relapsed multiple sclerosis in the second half of the year. This indication could bring Celgene around $2 billion in peak annual sales. Celgene also expects to announce results from a late-stage study of ozanimod in treating ulcerative colitis this year as well. 

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Image source: Getty Images.

Best of the best?

I really like all three of these big pharma stocks. J&J is nearly always a smart pick. Despite its disappointing performance in 2017, Celgene's growth story remains compelling. But, in my view, the best of these top big pharma stocks is AbbVie.

The main reason I think so highly of AbbVie is that it checks off all the boxes. If you're looking for growth, AbbVie has it, with double-digit percentage revenue and earnings growth likely over the next few years. If you like income, AbbVie has that as well, with a dividend yielding close to 3% and a strong track record of dividend increases.

But what about value? AbbVie also looks pretty good in that category. The stock trades at less than 15 times expected earnings. Factoring in the company's growth prospects makes that valuation appear even more attractive. I have sang AbbVie's praises for quite a while. With the new year now beginning, I'm still singing.

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Stocks Mentioned

AbbVie Inc. Stock Quote
AbbVie Inc.
ABBV
$151.72 (-0.47%) $0.71
Johnson & Johnson Stock Quote
Johnson & Johnson
JNJ
$173.94 (-0.89%) $-1.56
Celgene Corporation Stock Quote
Celgene Corporation
CELG

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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