Pharma shells out $100B on M&A in 2018 so far, with more to come: report

Data agreement
Changes to the U.S. tax code are freeing up cash for pharma companies to pour into deals. (Duisenberg/CC BY-SA 4.0)

After an unusually slow 2017, deal-making in Big Pharma roared back to life in the first half of this year, with $100 billion spent on mergers and acquisitions so far. And with such names as Johnson & Johnson and Allergan mulling both acquisitions and selloffs of some of their core assets, it’s likely the M&A boom will continue through 2018.

That’s the conclusion of an M&A review by BioSpace, which points to changes in the U.S. tax code as the primary impetus for all the deals. The new code brings the corporate tax rate below 20%, making it easier for Big Pharma to repatriate cash hordes they’ve been holding overseas. That money can then be poured into deal-making.

Celgene and Sanofi have led the charge in the first half of the year. At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco in January, Celgene announced a $7 billion acquisition of Impact Biomedicines, a startup that’s developing a JAK inhibitor to treat myelofibrosis. Then Celgene made an even bigger splash with its $9 billion purchase of cancer CAR-T developer Juno Therapeutics.

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Also in January, Sanofi picked up Biogen spin-out Bioverativ for $11.6 billion, bringing on board two hemophilia drugs and a bevy of pipeline candidates. Then it closed out the month by acquiring Ablynx for $4.8 billion, gaining a late-stage experimental compound to treat another blood disorder, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (aTTP).

Even bigger deals have been announced—GlaxoSmithKline’s $13 billion purchase of Novartis’ stake in a consumer health joint venture, for example, and Takeda’s planned $62 billion takeover of Shire—but several smaller tie-ups have also contributed to pushing the M&A tally past $100 billion. They include Merck's purchase of Viralytics for $394 million in February, which brought to its pipeline Cavatak, a cancer treatment made from a common cold virus.

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So who’s likely to be lining up deals for the second half of the year? Look out for activity from Johnson & Johnson, which just recently attracted a $2.8 billion offer for its Advanced Sterilization Products (ASP) unit from industrial equipment maker Fortive. The selloff was part of an ongoing effort by J&J to streamline its development efforts and boost its pipeline of high-value drugs. During its first-quarter earnings report in April, J&J CEO Alex Gorsky said changes in the U.S. tax code would allow the company to invest more than $30 billion in deals.

Allergan could also top the list of deal-makers, though the company is likely to sell off noncore assets before it gets into the acquisitions game. In May, the company said it would offload its infectious disease units and its women’s health business, the latter of which could bring in as much as $6 billion, analysts estimate. But CEO Brent Saunders hasn’t ruled out M&A: During the first-quarter earnings report, he said he’s weighing several strategic moves to boost Allergan’s four core therapeutic pursuits, including acquisitions.

All in all, the M&A landscape in Big Pharma this year is already a far cry from 2017, when there were 101 deals, only 14 of which were worth more than $1 billion, BioSpace reported. The industry is well on its way to surpassing last year’s M&A total already.