Pfizer's hunting for safe M&A bets, not high-risk pipeline deals

Pfizer CEO Ian Read

Pfizer ($PFE), a deal-minded drugmaker sitting on billions in cash, is more interested in acquiring near-market assets than investing in long-term projects, counting on a blockbuster oncology collaboration to keep its early-stage pipeline afloat.

On a conference call with analysts, Pfizer CEO Ian Read said his company is "biased toward deals with the potential for creating value in the near term," adding that he doesn't feel the drugmaker needs to "do a large deal" to keep its engines running.

Read, moving on from last year's failed effort to acquire AstraZeneca ($AZN) for about $118 billion, said Pfizer got all the pipeline ballast it needed through a roughly $2.9 billion deal with Merck KGaA signed in November.

Under that agreement, Pfizer is paying $850 million up front for the PD-L1 inhibitor MSB0010718C and promising as much as $2 billion more to collaborate with Merck KGaA on up to 20 new cancer immunotherapies. The deal, Pfizer Oncology President Albert Bourla said, "positions us well to potentially compete in the first wave of immuno-oncology therapies and be a leader in the second wave of combination therapies."

And, taking a broader view, the collaboration takes a load of pressure off of Pfizer as it considers its next move, Read said.

"If we hadn't strengthened our research, which we did in the deal with Merck on the immuno-oncology asset, then we may have felt we needed to do more business development in acquiring assets in our research," Read said on the call. "But I feel our research pipeline, middle stage to late stage, is strong, and I would rather take our capital right now and direct it to opportunities to accelerate EPS growth."

Of course, "if there was a piece of intellectual property that added huge value that we thought we could develop," Read said, "we would not be shy in acquiring that intellectual property."

Just what Pfizer will do with its reported $33 billion in free cash remains anyone's guess, and Read shrugged off questions about the company's purported interest in Actavis ($ACT) and Teva ($TEVA) with the terse "rumors are rumors."

But despite the CEO's assertion that Pfizer is on the right track with or without an acquisition or two, investors may not share his optimism. The company is slated to bring in about $46 billion in revenue this year, down from last year's $50 billion.

Absent any major M&A splash, Pfizer is counting on a handful of new medicines to bolster its bottom line. Leading the way is palbociclib, a breast cancer treatment analysts say could peak at between $3 billion and $5 billion a year in sales. Then there's bococizumab, a member of a newfangled class of cardio therapies with blockbuster expectations, followed by ertugliflozin, a Merck ($MRK)-partnered diabetes treatment.

- listen to the call