Drugmakers are an interesting bunch.

On the one hand, they get multi-year patent protection on new drugs, many of which become the preferred treatment for everything from heart disease to cancer. All of that means steady profits, because even in recessions, people buy their medicantions.

On the other hand, drugmakers must continually be filling the pipeline to ensure that they always have lucrative and profitable products under patent protection. That entails not just money but risk, as one never knows if a given candidate will actually turn into an effective -- and safe -- product.

Getting into the numbers
Who are the major drugmakers, and how do they stack up to one another?

Company

Market Cap (in millions)

Revenue, LTM (in millions)

Free Cash Flow, LTM (in millions)

R&D Expenditures

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)

$122,686

$55,892

$5,823

$8,296

****

Novartis (NYSE: NVS)

$111,386

$47,505

$11,722

$7,802

*****

Merck (NYSE: MRK)

$111,228

$33,465

$2,477

$6,471

****

GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK)

$89,778

$42,831

$10,424

$5,610

****

sanofi-aventis (NYSE: SNY)

$80,232

$38,411

$9,645*

$6,140

*****

Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT)

$75,280

$31,745

$7,017

$2,823

****

Bristol-Meyers Squibb (NYSE: BMY)

$44,333

$19,293

$3,419

$3,649

****

Data from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's, and the Motley Fool CAPS database; LTM = last 12 months.
*Period ending Dec. 31, 2009.

It's important to keep track of revenue, but free cash flow gives us a better sense of what the company is doing with that revenue -- and whether they'll have the funds to invest in the business later.

But the bread and butter of drugmakers is the pipeline -- those drugs in development and trials that can generate patent-protected profits for years on end. And a robust pipeline depends on robust R&D expenditures.

Which drugmaker do you like and why? Let us know in the comments box -- and tell us your reasons, too.

Fool editor Julie Clarenbach doesn't own any of the companies mentioned here. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Novartis is a Global Gains recommendation. The Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.