The year 2010 proved to be a mixed one for Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca
While the company recorded double-digit sales growth for its cholesterol-beating statin Crestor, asthma treatment Symbicort, and Seroquel XR, used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, and enjoyed good growth in emerging markets, falling sales in the U.S due to generic drug competition led to overall revenues for the year coming in pretty flat.
Also bad news for the bottom line, thought somewhat better news for the rest of us, was the absence of an H1N1 flu pandemic, and the resulting lack of sales of vaccines.
Total annual sales tipped the scales at $33.3 billion, leading to pre-tax profit of $11 billion and earnings per share of $6.71. That's a 1.6% increase in profit, and a 6% rise in EPS. The final quarter brought in pre-tax profit of $2.28 billion, 5.5% up on the $2.16 billion figure from the same period last year.
A final dividend of $1.85 will now be paid, bringing the full year dividend to $2.55 a share, up 11%.
Emphasizing the company's core strengths, chief executive officer David Brennan said:
Our performance in 2010 underlines the strength and resilience of AstraZeneca's business. Despite government pricing pressures and anticipated patent expiries in the U.S. and Western Europe, our revenues remained in line with the previous year driven by excellent performance of our key brands and continued growth in emerging markets.
Expectations for the next few years have been scaled back a bit, after the company's drug development pipeline suffered a few regulatory setbacks in the U.S. Its key anti-clotting drug Brilinta has not yet been granted approval, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instead asking for more information.
A further setback came from the discontinuation of the development of Motavizumab, a drug aimed at the prevention of a viral respiratory infection, leading to an impairment charge of $445 million in the fourth quarter.
These events have led AstraZeneca to lower its mid-term forecasts for the next few years.
For the 2010-2014 period, the company is now forecasting revenues in the range of $28 to $34 billion per year, and if sales from new drugs come in as now expected, we should expect sales to hit the midpoint of that range. New revenue streams from the drug development pipeline are now expected to contribute around $3 to $5 billion a year, which is a fall -- previously, contributions from new drugs had been forecast at $4 to $6 billion a year.
But if all that sounds a little gloomy, there is sunlight in the shape of plans to accelerate existing share buyback plans. With $2.1 billion spent on mopping up shares in 2010, AstraZeneca now plans to snap up a further $4 billion worth in 2011.
If EPS and dividends stay broadly flat at today's levels for the next few years, we're still looking at shares on a P/E of around 7.5 paying a healthy dividend every year -- and it's a well-covered and low-risk dividend at that.
The shares have lagged the FTSE by quite a bit over the past year, but that has mainly been due to falls on the back of those regulatory setbacks. And I think that led to their being oversold.
The value of share buybacks as a means of increasing value for shareholders is controversial in some quarters, with some people believing it is ineffective. But, at least in theory, what it means is that future profits will be divided less thinly, thus increasing the current value of the shares.
While the success of the share buyback plan remains to be seen, it's clear that AstraZenenca's board currently believes the shares to be undervalued. And if they're smart enough to recognize a bargain when they see it and buy up bucketfuls, canny long-term investors may want to look into doing something similar.
More from Fool U.K.'s Alan Oscroft:
This article has been adapted from our sister site across the pond, Fool U.K.
Alan doesn't own shares of AstraZeneca. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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