News out of the imuno-oncology sector of the biotech world has hit stocks in my portfolios such as Incyte (INCY) and Nektar Therapeutics (NKTR) hard. But, I’d argue that it has left Keytruda and its owner Merck (MRK) in a measurably stronger position in the market for cancer drugs.
And as they say, When the market gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. So I’d adding Merck to my Dividend Portfolio for a buy on Monday. (The company reports earnings on Monday. I don’t expect the numbers to create a big move in the stock, but if your opinion differs, you should factor that into the timing of any buy of Merck shares.) The shares pay a dividend of 3.22%.
I’m not looking for a big capital gain on these shares. Keytruda does indeed look like a multi-billion in sales blockbuster. But Merck faces the loss of patents on its drugs Zetia and Vytorin that will face increased competition from generics.
The big effect of Keytruda in my opinion is from that it provides a huge cushion for dividend investors. Standard & Poor’s see revenue in 2018 climbing to $41.88 billion from $40.18 billion in 2017. That’s nothing to set a growth investor’s heart aflutter, and S&P’s forecast for the drug industry as a whole calls for a compounded annual growth rate of only 3% to 6% from 2012 to 2018. But the success of Keytruda and the relatively small number of patent expirations that Merck is facing means that the dividend is extremely safe.
And that, in my opinion, is the worst case scenario. There are signs–good, solid signs–that after a very unproductive period Merck has re-invigorated its research program and that the company has a promising pipeline of new drug candidates. The success of Keytruda came after a series of setbacks–drug candidates that didn’t earn approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That had turned Merck’s R&D budget into something of a black hole–cash flowed in but nothing flowed out. The situation has changed in the last couple of years. In August 2016, for example, Merck had 21 drug research programs in Phase III clinical trials and 15 programs in Phase II trials.
As we know from recent events, a drug candidate in even a Phase III trial isn’t guaranteed to reach the market or to be a success once it does. But having lots of candidates in the pipeline is sure better than having none–and it is a promise of (perhaps)–some unexpected good news from Merck down the road a piece.