The skinny on earnings: Cost cuts boost Merck, Bristol-Myers, Forest as FX hits Sanofi

While many drugmakers were marveling over Pfizer's ($PFE) big bid for AstraZeneca ($AZN) or speculating about which megadeal might come next, a few big pharma companies rolled out their first-quarter earnings reports. Let's give them their due. Besides, we can't be all deals, all the time. Here are the highlights--or, given the almost-uniform slide in sales, the lowlights.

Merck ($MRK) posted a 7% hike in first-quarter earnings, despite a slight drop in revenue. How? Cost cuts and sell-offs. The company is in the midst of a layoffs plan designed to shrink payroll by 20% over the next two years; some 8,500 jobs are targeted. Already, marketing and admin expenses fell 8.5% and R&D spending slid by 17%, offsetting a decline in pharma sales of almost 5%. Total revenue: $10.3 billion, a tad short of the street's estimates. Profits: $1.71 billion, or 57 cents per share. Release | Report (sub. req.)

It was a similar story at Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), where an R&D restructuring pushed down costs. Selling out to its diabetes partner, AstraZeneca, helped, too. Together, the cuts and sale proceeds boosted net income to $936 million or 56 cents per share. Bristol-Myers did manage to grow drug sales, if you take the diabetes sale out of the equation; among the standout products for the quarter were Bristol-Myers' antipsychotic Abilify, which topped analyst estimates at $540 million in sales. Its cancer meds Yervoy and Sprycel did even better, growth-wise, with 18% and 19% increases, respectively. Release | Report

Thanks to hits from foreign currency and lower sales in animal health and vaccines, Sanofi ($SNY) fell short in the revenue department, with a 2.6% slide to €7.84 billion, or about $10.8 billion. Profits grew, thanks to lower acquisition-related costs; without those one-off effects, however, net income dropped by 3.2% to €1.55 billion, short of analyst forecasts. Supply problems took a hit out of vaccines, while generic versions of top Sanofi flea-and-tick products sliced animal health sales. The drug business fared better, with double-digit growth in diabetes, rare diseases and consumer health. Release | Report (sub. req.)

But look at Forest Laboratories ($FRX). After a sad 2013, when sales plummeted on Lexapro's patent expiration, the U.S.-based drugmaker delivered a 34% increase in revenue to $1.09 billion. It, too, is cutting jobs in a bid to boost earnings; for this period, profits came in at $54.1 million.

Buying exclusive rights to the antipsychotic drug Saphris, and snapping up the smaller drugmaker Aptalis Holdings, both helped boost sales. So did increases in sales of its newer drugs, such as the antidepressant Viibryd, which grew by 18% to $52.8 million, and the constipation drug Linzess, which racked up $60.8 million. Like its bigger rivals, Forest managed the hike in profits partly because of a cost-cutting program. Forest is in the process of being acquired by the generics maker Actavis ($ACT) for $25 billion. Release | Report

Special Reports: Top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - Merck - Sanofi | The top 10 pharma layoffs of 2013 - Merck

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