The ONLY Stocks You Should Own in This Sector

Large pharmaceutical companies are facing a crisis. The industry spent a record $65 billion on research and development (R&D) in 2009, but approval rates for new drugs have fallen 44% during the past decade and continue to drop. Also in 2009, drugs launched in the previous five years accounted for only 7% of all sales, meaning that older drugs closer to patent expiration make up the vast majority of sales. The failure rate of drugs in the final stages of development has doubled in recent years.

These facts are sobering proof that productivity levels for bringing successful drugs to market have declined severely in recent years. It is leading to soul searching in the industry and large cutbacks in R&D expenditure. Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), one of the largest of the Big Pharma firms, is cutting R&D from 2010 levels of $9.4 billion to between $6.5 billion and $7 billion by 2012. European drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) will cut spending by up to $4 billion and plans to radically change how it tries to bring new drugs to market. One industry source found it extremely troubling that the market sees R&D as destroying shareholder value.

Part of Glaxo’s shifting approach will be to outsource the initial stages of drug development. These earlier stages are the riskiest, as failure rates are high and are also costly, given the large number of compounds that must be tested. Finding the needle in a haystack is an understatement when it comes to bringing successful drugs to market. Other companies are following suit.The general belief is that Big Pharma will eventually outsource most of its drug development work to outsiders, be they university laboratories, smaller development-stage pharmaceutical and biotech startups, or companies known as contract research organizations (CROs).

Below is a list of the leading CROs…  

Covance (NYSE: CVD) is the largest CRO in terms of sales and market capitalization, but not by a wide margin compared to Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. (Nasdaq: PPDI). Charles River Labs (NYSE: CRL) and Parexel (Nasdaq: PRXL) are similar in terms of sales, while Icon plc (Nasdaq: ICLR), out of Ireland, is the smallest.

Here is an overview of the two that look most compelling to me from an investment standpoint.

#-ad_banner-#Icon plc (Nasdaq: ICLR)
Hands down, Icon has been the fastest growing of the CROs. In the past three, five, and 10-year periods, sales growth has averaged more than 20% annually, as has profit growth. 55% of its business stems from long-term contracts that are fixed in price, which provides a fair level of revenue stability. The company also counts the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in the world as clients and boasts more than 650 clients total.

Icon is one of the most globally diversified CROs and is also impressively profitable. The company posted operating margins of 11.2% and returns on invested capital (ROIC) in the mid-teens (see table above) in its latest fiscal year. The stock looks a bit expensive looking at the forward P/E and trailing free cash flow, but the company is using this year to invest in its business and expects profits to take a short-term dip, after which growth has a solid chance of returning to historical levels and generating impressive returns for investors.

Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. (Nasdaq: PPDI)
Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc., or PPDI for short, has been another consistent grower over time that is impressively profitable. The company has been around for more than 25 years, which makes it one of the oldest CRO firms, allowing it time to extend its services to 43 countries. It has strong capabilities in the earliest stages of drug development, such as Phase I clinical trials.

PPDI trades for one of the lowest free cash flow multiples and also boasts double-digit returns on invested capital. The company has a reputation for low client turnover, and counts Merck (NYSE: MRK) as a key strategic client. It is also the only CRO to pay a dividend, which demonstrates its confidence in generating stable and consistent profits. Its current dividend yield is 2.1% and should appeal to income-oriented investors.    

Action to Take —> Icon estimates that pharmaceutical firms outsource more than $20 billion to CRO firms, or about a third of the industry’s 2009 total R&D spending. Based off industry trends, this figure will rise significantly in coming years and it is not unreasonable to estimate that the CRO industry will pick up half of this spending within a couple of years. This would represent 50% growth and doesn’t count overall growth in healthcare, which is set to rise significantly in the United States (the world’s largest market) as a result of recent health care legislation that is projected to add 30 million more patients into the system. Icon plc is my top pick in the space, followed by PPDI.