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Drug firms warn of tough 2012

Eli Lilly and Co., of Indianapolis, was among pharmaceutical companies hit hard by its generic competition, analysts say.Darron Cummings/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

For drugmakers, the golden era of the 1990s and early part of the last decade, when they seemed to effortlessly churn out new multibillion-dollar pills for the masses along with double-digit quarterly profit increases, is not even in the rearview mirror any more.

Buzzwords such as “blockbuster’’ and “cash cow’’ have all but disappeared. The new vocabulary stresses “headwinds,’’ “austerity,’’ and “efficiency.’’ The “Do More with Less’’ mantra of many industries is basically on steroids in the pharmaceutical business, where most companies have shed 10 percent to 20 percent of their workforce and closed factories and offices or sold them - if they could find a buyer.


Amid these challenges, the major drugmakers have been reading from the same script in reporting mediocre year-end results and trying to brace investors for a difficult 2012.

Almost unanimously, company executives say revenue will be flat or down this year because of a mix of generic competition, pricing pressures in the European Union and now some key emerging markets, unfavorable currency exchange rates, and research setbacks or manufacturing problems.

And they are all trying to soothe investors with promises of more share buybacks and dividend hikes, plans to heavily market their newest drugs, and hopes for new approvals or encouraging data on medicines now in testing.

“If you didn’t know what company you were listening to, they were all sounding the same’’ on the fourth-quarter conference calls, said Edward Jones analyst Linda Bannister. “They have good balance sheets, good cash flow [but] these companies are all struggling with the same issues.’’

Some of the pressures on the industry are self-inflicted, particularly the many drug and medical device recalls that have cut into sales and raised scrutiny by regulators and quality concerns among patients.

Many factory production lines have closed under pressure from regulators because of contamination by bacteria and shards of glass or metal, improper levels of active ingredients and other safety issues. Fixing the problems and resuming production takes many months, and rival manufacturers rarely have the capacity to quickly pick up the slack, leading to drug shortages that have reached a crisis in US hospitals.


In an effort to retain investor confidence, executives are touting experimental drugs in development, which may or may not pan out. And they all stress how “shareholder friendly’’ they are, offering large dividends and more share buybacks, which are aimed at raising both share prices and earnings per share.

US-based drugmakers, nudged by Wall Street portfolio managers, are now paying out dividends at ratios two or three times those of other big corporations, noted analyst Steve Brozak of WBB Securities. Johnson & Johnson’s dividend yield - the annual dividend payment divided by share price - is about 3.5 percent, while Eli Lilly and Co., the drugmaker taking the biggest hit from generic competition, is paying almost 5 percent.

“The three things that are saving the industry right now are dividends, dividends, and dividends,’’ which are propping up stock prices, Brozak said.