Forget a Roche merger; Novartis sell-offs could be imminent, analyst says

Novartis chairman Joerg Reinhardt

News flash from Basel: Yes, Novartis really is considering selling off a few of its units, in deals that could be worth $15 billion to $20 billion. And no, Roche ($RHHBY) and Novartis ($NVS) aren't likely to embark on any big joint projects, much less consider a merger.

This is how Bernstein Research analyst Tim Anderson sees it. He visited both Swiss drugmakers recently and talked with the companies' top brass. Both seemed intent on quashing talk of a crosstown merger, recently triggered by Novartis board member Pierre Landolt's enthusiastic comments on the prospect. Novartis chief Joe Jimenez told Anderson that Landolt's opinion was his own and might not be shared; Roche CFO Alan Hippe said mega-mergers are too disruptive, and his company just isn't interested in them.

Rather than eyeing a big merger, Novartis may be on the verge of slimming down instead. Novartis chairman Joerg Reinhardt started a strategic review almost as soon as he moved into his office, sparking talk of Pfizer-esque unit sales. He said Novartis wouldn't go all-pharma again, but Novartis has its eye company, Alcon--which means animal health, consumer health, vaccines and diagnostics could all be sold off without restricting the company solely to prescription drugs.

And that, apparently, is exactly what Novartis is considering. "[W]e were struck by how openly Mr. Jimenez seemed to acknowledge that its consumer health, animal health, and vaccines & diagnostics businesses are on the block," Anderson wrote in an investor note, adding, "It seems that Novartis will be making final decisions with those units fairly soon."

Lately, unit sales and spinoffs are a Big Pharma trend, kicked off by Pfizer ($PFE). The CEO of the world's largest drugmaker decided that smaller would be better, and the company has since sold off its nutrition business and spun off its animal health unit, Zoetis. Now, the company is preparing to rejig its operations into three distinct units, each with its own discrete financial reporting--which could be the prelude to a bigger break-up. Meanwhile, Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) spun off its prescription drug business, AbbVie ($ABBV), and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) CEO Andrew Witty announced that he'd segregate some older products into a new business with its own reported numbers.

So, when Reinhardt stepped in at Novartis, pharma-watchers speculated that he might undo some of his predecessor's diversification moves. For instance, the purchase of the vaccines company Chiron, which hasn't paid off as Novartis had hoped.

Might Roche be interested in buying any of Novartis's businesses? "Not likely, in our view," Anderson wrote. He outlined a few other possibilities for collaboration but deemed all of them rather unlikely. The two companies share the eye drug Lucentis and the respiratory drug Xolair, so that's common ground, but Hippe declared that Roche would be keeping its late-stage prospects in those fields to itself. "[I]t may just be lip service that Novartis and Roche might become closer in the future," he wrote. "This would not be unusual."

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