As JPM 2019 wraps up, biopharma's outlook is 'cautiously optimistic,' executives say

SAN FRANCISCO—The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference usually takes one of two tones.

“Everyone is so dour they’re looking at the tops of their shoes the entire week, or it’s unbridled enthusiasm,” Neurocrine CEO Kevin Gorman said.

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Last year’s meeting, which took place right after U.S. tax changes went into effect, certainly looked more like the latter. Companies talked up their improved tax rates and their ability to tap overseas cash for what looked at the time to be a big year of dealmaking.

This year’s meeting, though? It followed a brutal end of 2018 for the markets in general, and for biotech in particular. And yet executives agreed the tone was somewhere between gloom and sunshine—“much better than I would have anticipated,” Gorman said.

Sure, there’s been uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration, and “every day something coming out of it from somewhere,” GlaxoSmithKline’s chief strategy officer David Redfern said. But “what I’ve picked up is most people think” the environment for biopharma is “getting tougher, but not massively so.”

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On the whole, things seem “reasonably positive, albeit it’s quite a complex global backdrop that we’re all operating in and pretty nervous markets,” he added.

Gorman described the collective outlook similarly, dubbing it, “cautious optimism.”

The enthusiasm could be a function of the fact that “the year certainly started off with a bang,” when it comes to M&A, with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly each inking big buyouts. “M&A is something that always gets people energized, so that’s my sense of how the meetings have been,” he said.

And consulting firm PwC, for its part, expects to see the buying spree continue—for real this time.

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2019 should be “a very robust year,” Glenn Hunzinger, PwC’s pharma and life sciences deals leader, said. Last year, despite the influx of cash, other factors slowed dealmaking down, and a lack of desire to do deals wasn’t one of them.

“There was a lot of change in CEOs, the capital markets were a little frothy, prices were high, and there was high uncertainty around regulatory and the ability to price drugs,” he said.

Now, “what we’re seeing is that pent-up demand really coming through,” he noted, adding, “the profile right now” for M&A “has never been better.”