Overpay much? Pharma's deal prices have quadrupled in the last two years

Drugmakers shelled out twice as much for acquisitions in 2016 as they did in 2015—and it wasn’t because those buys were twice as valuable.

Cheap credit and an industrywide scramble to boost pipelines have together inflated the prices pharma’s paying, and that trend isn’t necessarily over. The median value of a pickup in 2016 was 39 times the takeover target's revenue, compared with 19 times revenue in 2015 and eight times in 2014, the Financial Times reports, citing an analysis from industry consultancy Novasecta.

Those figures, of course, don’t mean the actual number of pharma deals is up year-over-year. On the contrary, dealmaking slowed in 2016, in part because of the drug-pricing controversy—and high-profile tweets—that sent biotech valuations spiraling. That decline, in turn, sparked a reluctance among would-be targets to sell on the cheap.

That’s only made the competition fiercer for companies that are willing to talk takeover. Medivation, to name a glaring example, reportedly drew interest from Sanofi, Merck, Celgene, Gilead, Amgen, AstraZeneca and Novartis last year before being snapped up by Pfizer for a $14 billion sum that raised analysts’ eyebrows.

“People are taking more risk and paying for hope—they are paying for growth that cannot be assured,” Novasecta partner John Rountree told the FT. 

The New York pharma giant is hardly alone in its dealmaking zeal, though, as recent events have shown. Last month, Sanofi—which came up empty in its hostile Medivation pursuit—saddled up for a reported $30 billion bid for Actelion before the Swiss biotech went back to original suitor Johnson & Johnson.

“Winning a bidding war when it comes to acquiring biopharmaceutical companies almost always equates to overpaying,” Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson remarked on that price. “These are not bragging rights.”

Meanwhile, some stateside companies could soon have an influx of cash to play with if U.S. President-elect Donald Trump eases the tax burden for those looking bring overseas stashes back home. And that repatriation tax holiday could further fuel the overpaying trend, especially for companies under pressure to lock up short-term growth, Rountree said.

"The pressure for companies to overpay for acquisitions that give short-term growth is intense, and the era of cheap capital has exacerbated this phenomenon," he said.

At least one analyst won’t be surprised if Pfizer ends up falling into that category. Hot sellers Ibrance, a cancer drug, and Prevnar 13, a pneumococcal vaccine, may not be able to keep their expansion rates going in already-penetrated markets, and competitors to Ibrance are on their way, too, Jefferies analyst Jeffrey Holford wrote in a research note last October.

“We believe that the environment for M&A is very competitive right now and there is a high risk that Pfizer may overpay for assets," Holford said.