As much as I like GlaxoSmithKline
In regard to Glaxo, you will be hard-pressed to find a pharmaceutical giant that is larger, more profitable, has higher product stability and diversity, or a stronger product pipeline. In term of valuation, recent scares regarding the safety and side effects of diabetes drug Avandia have pushed the stock close to its 52-week lows. Avandia worries appear overblown, because the drug accounts for just over 5% of total sales.
As it stands currently, Glaxo trades at a trailing P/E under 14 and its forward P/E is closer to 13.5. The recent share price weakness has also resulted in a more favorable, 3.7% dividend yield. So, what's not to like?
Growth at Glaxo is the problem. It is the third-largest pharma company in terms of market capitalization and sales. As a result, new drug compounds must attain blockbuster status to have any meaningful impact on the bottom line.
It's no surprise then that sales growth has been anemic, averaging only a couple of percent on average over the past five years. The outlook isn't inspiring, either, as the company will be lucky to expand the top line in the high single digits in the coming years. Earnings growth has been stronger over this time frame, averaging in the low double digits. However, the bottom line is projected to average less than 10% over the next couple of years.
Glaxo is definitely a safe bet in the industry, and Avandia concerns have brought the share levels to even more reasonable levels. But I am finding the risk/reward trade-off even more compelling in other names, including Pfizer
I recently argued that Pfizer's growth concerns are overblown and it is benefiting shareholders via a 4.4% dividend yield and repurchase of billions in stock. It is also aggressively cutting costs, preparing for when Lipitor, its largest-selling drug, loses patent protection. Amgen is also experiencing product uncertainty as its flagship Aranesp and Epogen anemia drugs are seeing increased scrutiny related to aggressive use to treat certain patients.
With uncertainty comes opportunity, and Pfizer is a definite value play in the group at just over 12 times forward earnings expectations. Amgen is an even more interesting opportunity, because it trades at less than 14 times forward earnings projections and can grow in the double digits going forward.
The risk is clearly higher for Pfizer and Amgen, because key products are the subject of current uncertainty and they are also subject to the law of large numbers. But I just don't see as much upside in owning Glaxo, even at current levels. Peers such as Eli Lilly
Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann is long shares of J&J, Pfizer, and Amgen but has no financial interest in any company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.