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Why Ulta and Atea Rained on the Nasdaq's Parade Tuesday

By Dan Caplinger – Oct 19, 2021 at 12:55PM

Key Points

  • Markets were broadly higher, including the Nasdaq.
  • Ulta Beauty released a new financial outlook that made some investors less certain about its future.
  • Atea Pharmaceuticals got negative study results on its COVID-19 antiviral pill.

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Even with downward pressure from these two stocks, the Nasdaq Composite moved higher again.

The Nasdaq Composite (^IXIC) has been one of the most resilient stock market indexes for investors over the past 18 months. After taking a hit with the rest of the market at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nasdaq has bounced the most of any major benchmark. The good news for the index continued today, with the Nasdaq rising more than half a percent as of 11:45 a.m. EDT on a solid day across Wall Street.

That said, not every stock listed on the Nasdaq exchange managed to post gains on Tuesday morning. Salon and cosmetics retail specialist Ulta Beauty (ULTA -0.33%) was down on concerns for the company's long-term future, while Atea Pharmaceuticals (AVIR -3.31%) saw a big plunge as a key study failed to produce the results investors had wanted to see.

Ulta looks ahead

Shares of Ulta Beauty were down 5% Tuesday morning. The company is holding its annual investor conference today, and prior to the beginning of its presentation, it released long-term financial targets and a list of strategic priorities over the next several years.

Person trying on cosmetics at a store counter.

Image source: Getty Images.

Ulta's guidance reflected somewhat more measured expectations for future growth in its beauty business. The company now sees revenue growing at a 5% to 7% annual clip from fiscal 2022 to 2024, with comparable sales likely to rise around 3% to 5% annually. Ulta plans to open roughly 50 stores per year over the time frame, and it sees low double-digit percentage gains in earnings per share on an annual basis.

Yet the company is still optimistic about its strategic vision. One of the more interesting new moves is its partnership with Alphabet's Google to improve the visibility of Ulta's GLAMlab Virtual Try-On tool for lipstick and eyeshadow products. The partnership should allow users to see the tool when they use Google's search engine or are on the YouTube video platform.

Ulta has captured a key consumer market, and its salon concept is resonating with customers who want to get back in the swing of everyday life. In that light, its guidance was a bit disappointing, but shareholders can hope that the company is just being conservative and will be able to surpass its own expectations handily in the years to come.

Atea deals with disappointment

Meanwhile, shares of Atea Pharmaceuticals plunged more than 60% Tuesday morning. The biopharmaceutical company had hoped that a potential antiviral treatment for COVID-19 would prove to be effective, but a midstage clinical trial failed to deliver the results shareholders had wanted to see.

Atea said that its global phase 2 Moonsong trial evaluating its AT-527 candidate antiviral treatment failed to reach its primary endpoint of reduced levels of SARS-CoV-2 virus in patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 compared with a placebo. Roughly two-thirds of patients in the study showed mild symptoms and were in low-risk categories for the disease.

Atea did try to see a silver lining in the trial results, though. High-risk patients suffering from other underlying health conditions did see reductions in viral loads.

In response, Atea will have to work with partner Roche to look at possible modifications to its ongoing phase 3 trial. That will push expected data from the late-stage trial into the second half of 2022, and more importantly could limit its potential use to a smaller subset of COVID-19 patients.

Investors had been increasingly optimistic about the prospect for Atea to join Merck with a successful COVID-19 antiviral in oral form. However, the news today leaves Atea needing to play catch-up, and shareholders have had their confidence shaken in Atea's chances of having a blockbuster on its hands.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Dan Caplinger owns shares of Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Atea Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and Ulta Beauty. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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